The Loneliest Place

One of the loneliest places in the world is the voice of reason between two errors. Humans have the tendency to gravitate to one extreme when faced with the choice between two competing options. Political correctness becomes rudeness, preserving tradition becomes unquestioned devotion to the new, dry theology becomes empty emotionalism, and lack of compassion for physical suffering turns into a religion of social justice. However, no good ever comes of replacing one folly with a different one, and the church needs to embrace the challenge of following what Scripture says while avoiding the errors of extremes.

I want to be clear that I am not advocating that we all adopt the fallacy of the golden mean, which assumes that when people disagree on an issue, the truth must always be a compromise between the two sides. While fitting a kindergarten idea of “can’t we all just get along,” that assumption is just one more erroneous path. Some ideas are false. Some of them are devastatingly false. That means that the people that hold them are also wrong, and need to change to what is right. What we need is not simply a compromise between the extremes, but an objective standard that will guide us through the rocks, and it will come as no surprise that I am going to suggest to you that Scripture is the key.

An acquaintance recently sent me a link to John Pavlovitz’s blog, where he discusses his disdain for “American Christianity.” To be fair, I share a few of his same concerns with attitudes in the modern church, but rather than simply pointing out errors, he replaces them with a contrasting error, developing through the entirely of his site, a version of Christianity that almost perfectly mirrors the talking points of a specific political party (I’ll let you decide which one). Most of the site is dedicated to castigating conservative Christians, while he attacks the inerrancy of Scripture, the existence of Hell, and suggests that Scripture’s views on sex and gender are mere archaic reflections of the writers’ sexism and patriarchal mentality. Unsurprisingly, he takes a rather low view of Scripture:

          “The Bible doesn’t clearly say very much, and we who claim the Christian faith need to              be able to admit this…”

          “I can tell a fellow Christian that the Bible clearly says that Christians are to love God                and to love their neighbor as themselves…”

          “If the Bible were as clear as Christians claimed it is, then each of us who have read and            studied it would come to the same conclusions on every matter—and clearly we have not. That’s because… it isn’t a textbook, it’s a traveling companion.”

While in post after post he accuses conservative Christians of cherry-picking and misusing Scripture, his own Bible has been all whited out (or at least rewritten in pencil) save for the phrase “Love God, and love your neighbor.” What does loving God and loving your neighbor look like to Mr. Pavlovitz? Exactly as he with all his political and cultural biases wants it to. He has reinvented Christianity into his own likeness.

Reinterpreting Christianity to suit our sensibilities is a danger to which we can all fall prey, and that tendency within some theologically conservative circles is the fodder for these opposing errors. If we orient our entire approach to Christianity as a response to one particular enemy (as Pavlovitz does), our tendency is to conclude that truth can be measured by the distance we are from the one group that we loath. It’s very much like being so obsessed with not running our ship into the shore that we plow into a reef instead. We need to follow the chart, and not assume that just because we are far away from one hazard that we are automatically safe.

Pavlovitz has essentially thrown out the chart, and he’s not the first person to do it. He’s doing exactly what the snake did in the Garden of Eden. Introduce uncertainty about God’s clear commands and then inject your own ideas to take their place. In fact, Scripture is much clearer than he wants to admit. While there are challenging passages, I would say that 90% of our uncertainty with Scripture comes from the fact that it gets in the way of our cultural, theological, and political biases, and our self-important desire to set the rules instead of conforming to them. If we follow Scripture; If we understand how to consistently read it according to the meaning of the original author in his specific literary form; if we look at it as a united whole and place the same emphasis that it does on different issues rather than picking out the parts that we like the most, Scripture will be our chart to keep us away from the rocks on all sides.

In our increasingly divided, you’re-either-with-me-or-against-me world, being the voice of Biblical reason between two errors means opening yourself up to attacks from all sides. It’s mentally and emotionally exhausting at times. Conservatives will vilify and dismiss you as a liberal sell-out, and liberals will label you a violent hateful sadistic bigot. Why? Human nature compels us to categorize people as either enemies or friends – plus, extremes are just plain easy. Making good judgement calls, maintaining balance and being willing to choose the right side of an issue regardless of who you might be perceived as “joining” are difficult. It’s not a path for the faint of heart, but it is the path of integrity.

It has been said that there is no problem so bad that you can’t make it worse. This is especially true in the realm of worldview. If, in our eagerness to attack one error, we choose another to replace it, we are in a worse place than we started out, adopting falsehood just like those we set out to oppose. We need to cling to Scripture as our guide, for without it we are adrift on a sea full of hazards with only a broken compass to guide us.

–Thomas Hersman

 

Words “Are” Necessary

“Preach the Gospel at all times, and when necessary, use words.”

(Commonly misattributed to Francis of Assisi)

 

I’ve heard this quote my whole life, and if I’m being honest, I’ve probably used it myself a few times. It’s so engrained in evangelical subculture, that I took no special notice when the guest speaker at church asked who had heard it. What got my attention was when he called it “wickedness.”

Here’s what he said:

“That’s like saying feed the hungry at all times, use food if necessary. You cannot share the Gospel without using words, because faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God. You cannot live a good enough life to win someone for the kingdom of heaven. You can provide a context and opportunity, but salvation comes when the Gospel is proclaimed, and received and believed in. And we must recapture the sense of the church proclaiming and speaking the Gospel at all times in all sorts of places.” ­- Jacob Ley, the Chapel, Wadsworth, OH

It’s not possible. Not for me. I’m a worldview fanatic, who’s been accused of over-thinking everything. How did this one stay under my radar for so long? Maybe because it hits close to home? We may presume to know what the pseudo Assisi quote means – that a person’s life needs to match the message he preaches and that the way that we live our lives speaks louder than the words that we say. While these observations are true, there is hiding here in plain sight, an error (dare I agree with the pastor and call it wickedness?), that threatens to dilute the great commission with modern sensibilities.

First, can we all agree that there are a lot of people within Evangelical Christendom, that don’t back up words with actions? As 1 Corinthians 13 tells us, without the foundation of love, all that we say is a bunch of obnoxious noise. Matthew 5:16 affirms in the context of the beatitudes, that our righteous lives should point the people around us to the one true God. As a pastor’s kid (and many times since), I have had a front row seat to the horror show of nominal Christians on Sunday morning self-righteously proclaiming their love for Jesus in front of a congregation of witnesses to their lives of defiance to the entirety of God’s law. I’ve seen people commit the most egregious acts of maliciousness and spite through a saccharine smile, saying “God bless you!” while they twist the knife in your back deeper. It is in the midst of such transgressions that we want to proclaim the necessity of endeavoring (with all our imperfections) to live a life that proclaims through actions the Gospel we preach with our words.

However, the faux Assisi quote does something more. It assumes that the primary method for preaching the Gospel message is living well, while we speak up only once in a while as needed. The Great Commission in Matthew 28:19-20 is a decidedly active mission, with going, baptizing, and teaching to make disciples. God’s people were sent out in Acts 1:8 as witnesses, and we see in their lives a willingness to continually speak up, spreading the Gospel message at the cost of great persecution and martyrdom. So, how do we get from risking martyrdom to share the Gospel to passively waiting, hoping for a socially “appropriate” moment to speak up?

We’ve confused “loving” with “passive.” There was nothing passive about Christ. He was gentle and patient when appropriate, yes, but he spoke with authority, pointing out both the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, and the immorality of the woman at the well. However, in a culture where simply making a truth claim that excludes opposing views is considered hateful and “-phobic,” many Christians’ version of evangelism has come to take on a very post-modern, or even post-truth flavor for the very simple reason that it allows us to fit in as much as possible with our surroundings, without rocking the boat too much.

It is the path of least resistance. It doesn’t take a PhD in Theology to share the gospel. In fact, the woman at the well was an effective witness mere minutes from hearing the Gospel. That doesn’t mean that average Christians should get a pass from learning the basics of evangelism. Clearly, we need to understand the Gospel message, and we need to be able to meaningfully communicate it to others. We also need to understand how to have spiritual conversations that help us discover where others are in the path to becoming a believer. Finally, every believer should know at least a little bit of apologetics to be able to answer honest questions about Christian belief. That takes effort, and it’s a whole lot easier just to let the “experts” handle it.

It avoids social awkwardness. One of the things that I heard repeatedly as a young adult, is that you should never discuss politics or religion with your friends. That doesn’t fit well with the Great Commission. As a naturally introverted person, I have struggled my whole life to make Spiritual conversations a natural part of my life, and to be honest, I still have much room for improvement. Clearly, Christians shouldn’t use this as a license to be rude, but consider the tragedy of a person who would risk the everlasting soul of a fellow human, just to avoid a little bit of social awkwardness.

It keeps us from being a target. Any Christian who speaks up risks being a target of criticism. For Christians that aren’t living right, this means answering for their own hypocrisy. It’s much easier to fly under the radar, living and letting live. However, even sincere Christians face uncomfortable accusations of hypocrisy both from non-believers, and from those nominal Christians who are looking for a chance to prove that they are the cool, tolerant types, unlike some Christians. Personal accusations are the go to attack in today’s culture, precisely because they hit where it hurts most. However, the Spirit-filled Christian isn’t going it alone, and is empowered both to grow when needed, and to deflect those attacks that are meant only to tear down.

I wish that I could present my own life as the perfect model for others to follow, but I am still a work in progress. What I know for sure is that to be a Biblical Christian, I must have a life that testifies to the truth, coupled with a willingness to testify personally to the gospel message even when it comes at a personal price. Whatever that cost, it is a mere pittance in comparison to the value of sharing the love of our Savior with a desperate soul drowning in sin.

–Thomas Hersman

What is Truth?

“You are a king then?” Pilate asked.

“You say that I’m a king,” Jesus replied. “I was born for this, and I have come into the world for this: to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.”

“What is truth?” said Pilate.

John 18:37-38 (CSB)

When I teach a Bible class I often ask my students to finish this statement, “The Bible is…” Within the first few responses, someone always says, “True!” I follow that up by asking “What do we mean when we say the Bible is true?” I’ve found that many people have trouble with that question. Though we talk a lot about the truth, Christians struggle defining it coherently. It doesn’t help that cultural figures such as Oprah Winfrey have popularized the idea of “Speaking your truth,” as though truth is an expression of a person’s individual personality. It’s important for us to understand what truth is, to be able to explain it to a post-truth culture, and to be prepared for push back from a society that finds the Christian concept of truth too restrictive on its individuality.

True = Real. Simply put, Christians understand any statement that is true to be one that accurately corresponds to what is real. To illustrate this point, I’m using a metal pin art toy. Imagine that each pin represents a statement called a “truth claim” (it makes a claim about what is real). When my daughter presses her hand into the pins, I see a representation of her hand. It’s not perfect, but it gives me many accurate details. As she moves her hand, the pins move, and reflect the changes. The image the pins show is “true” (in my analogy) because each pin directly corresponds to the real object behind the pins.

Truth is Objective not Subjective. An objective standard is one that is outside myself, and a subjective standard is something inside of myself. If my daughter removes her hand from behind the pins and shakes the toy, the image changes. It still looks like a hand, but because the real object isn’t behind the pins, there is nothing to hold them in an accurate representation of her hand. When the hand was in place, there was an objective standard, now that it is gone, the placement of the pins is subjective, determined by the characteristics of the toy, and not an object behind it. If I have a subjective idea, it is created by my own emotions, personality, or opinions, and not reality.

Our knowledge of truth will always be imperfect, but that doesn’t mean we should give up searching for truth. Human understanding and perception is imperfect, just as the image in the toy doesn’t convey every detail of what the object is truly like. That imperfection has led to the common feeling in modern culture that since none of us have a perfect understanding of reality, then no one should make any appeal to objective truth (i.e., a truth claim), especially when it comes to ideas like good and evil, or right and wrong. However, we can know a lot of things for sure, even if we don’t have all the information. For instance, I can tell that this is a toy car and not a hand.

Truth is not about what simply works. I told my daughter in this final picture to make an image of a hand. The result would no doubt suit her purpose of showing basically what a hand looks like. It has five fingers and a palm, but it’s not a true representation of an object. You aren’t getting a picture of reality.

Truth doesn’t care about your feelings. This should be the most obvious conclusion. If truth is about what is real, the emotion I feel toward a truth claim has nothing to do with whether that claim is actually true. It doesn’t matter how authentically felt or how deeply entrenched those emotions are. They don’t change truth. Is that harsh? I suppose, but reality doesn’t care.

Everyone makes truth claims, even if they don’t believe in truth. This is one of those brute facts that culture can’t escape. Even if I say, “There is no truth.” I am saying “It is true, that there is no truth.” That is a self-defeating statement, the logical equivalent of cutting off the branch you are sitting on. Even when Oprah implies that truth is self-determined, she has a problem. That very claim does not come from “self” (unless Oprah is a figment of my own imagination), so the statement again defeats itself. Imagine a person slamming into your car, and then driving off. You tell the police, and when they arrest the man, he says “Well, that is your truth, but my truth is that you damaged the car yourself.” No one in their right mind would accept that, so why would we accept it when it comes to morality or belief in God?

There are some rules that govern truth. You can’t even argue against them without using them. They just are. Together they add up to the simple conclusion that true is true, and false is false and there is no middle ground. If I make the statement “My car is red.” You might argue that my claim is both true and false. Under a blue light, my car would be black, to a color-blind person it might be brown. To a cat, it might be yellow. Those observations while correct, don’t prove that my claim is both true and false, but that we are using different definitions of what it means for something to be “red” and I need to be more specific. Under a shared understanding of the word, then the statement must be either true or false.

All truth comes from God. The irony of John 18:37-38 is that Pilate is asking Truth Himself what truth is. Jesus said in John 14:6a, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” The meaning in this statement is much deeper than we realize. God is the only mind that perceives everything always, in all places. As the Creator and Sustainer of the Universe, He is the measure of what is true. That doesn’t mean that we can’t perceive some truths while denying God, but the further we move away from Him, the less our worldview reflects what is real (the 71 gender options for Facebook illustrate this). It also means that we don’t have to rely only upon our own imperfect and incomplete knowledge, since He has chosen to step in and speak to us directly through His Word.

Christians should love truth in all its forms, and fight falsehood from the pulpit to Facebook. Our goal should be to know what is true, and to allow that truth to change the way that we think and act. We should never be afraid of learning truth in whatever way we can, utilizing scientific research, discovery, and inquiry, and guided by sound reason and logic. However, we always keep in mind our own sinful imperfections, and the philosophies and worldviews that tend to distort our search for truth. We hold everything up to the light of God’s Word, knowing that whenever we are in doubt, the one who defines reality gets the final say.

–Thomas Hersman

Is This Debate Pointless?

In case you’ve been living under a rock, people argue a lot. Our changing culture has pitted conservatives against liberals, Republicans against Democrats, originalists against revisionists, secularists against the religious, traditional against contemporary, and of course Starbucks against Dunkin Donuts.

Most Christians have first-hand knowledge of the potential for these debates to polarize and shatter unity. In 2 Timothy 2:23, Paul cautions Timothy to “reject foolish and ignorant disputes” because of the quarrels they breed. Some Christians use this verse as a subjective “can’t we all just get along” principle, intended to shut down any discussion that they feel is unimportant, or even personally uninteresting. Yet, we all should understand that there are some hills worth defending even at the cost of excluding those who choose the wrong side. The question is, how do we know when an argument or debate is worth having, and when we ought to simply agree to disagree?

Scripture doesn’t list each specific instance where presenting an argument to counter a false idea is worth the cost in peace and unity. However, we have several clear passages that identify for us what a good and bad disagreement looks like. Four passages that I would like to highlight are: 2 Timothy 2:14-26, Titus 3:1-11, 1 Timothy 6:3-5, 20-21, and the always relevant James 1:19-20. From these (and many others), we can develop a litmus test for deciding if we are disagreeing the right way and for the right reasons.

Truth is the measure, not your feelings. This should go without saying, and yet it’s a necessary reminder for us all. If you are arguing a position for which you have no supporting objective (i.e., not your own opinion) principles, your argument is quite literally pointless. It’s like debating which smells better, the color green or the color purple. Truth is the guiding principle of the believer, and it must be the measure of all. If that is not the case – or if you don’t have enough knowledge of the subject at hand to make that determination, you have no business pressing an issue that risks causing dissention among believers.

We never tolerate gross immorality or theological heresy within the body of believers. Paul commands the Corinthians to “Purge the evil person from among you!” (1 Cor. 5:13) The church cannot allow gross immorality to persist, nor can it tolerate ideologies that seek to reinterpret or amend the fundamental moral standards that this passage (and many others) clearly defines. Similarly, Christians hold certain essential (i.e., they define us) truth claims that cannot be compromised. These include (but aren’t limited to) the characteristics of God and Christ, and the way of Salvation. Such principles aren’t up for debate or revision within the church. We must rigorously defend them, and exclude those who spread counterfeits.

Destructive disputes (and disputers) often look a certain way. Destructive disputes often make a big deal over minor issues, Titus 3:9 speaks of debates over genealogies and the OT (presumably) law, and 2 Timothy 2:14 condemns arguing over words (semantics). Verse 16 condemns “irreverent babble.” 2 Timothy 2:22 decries “foolish” (silly, childish, without serious merit, not worthy of consideration), and “ignorant” (based upon lack of knowledge and understanding) controversies. We can also know destructive disputes because of what they produce. Not godliness, or benefit for Believers, but: envyI want what you have enough to sin to get it; dissentionI don’t want resolution, I want to be disagreeable; slanderI’m going to paint you in the worst possible light; evil suspicionI’m always going to assume the worst about your motives; constant frictionI’m always peeved about something someone said or did. The people causing this dissention are not merely confused about what to believe, they are full of pride and self-serving ambitions, desiring not the good of fellow-believers but some sort of personal gain, be it power, prestige, or even monetary benefits. (I Tim. 6:3-5) Scripture makes it clear that the source of their error is an unrepentant heart, not simply ignorance. (2 Tim. 2:25-26)

On debatable issues, we must consider the cost vs. the benefit. What we believe determines how we act, but that doesn’t mean that every small issue of belief and practice is worthy of a full-on crusade. Scripture often appeals to the standard of what is beneficial to the body of Christ. (Titus 3:9) We should ask the question, “What is at stake if the Church fails on this issue? Is it eternal? Will it have a measurable impact in our readiness to fulfill the Great Commission?” Or, if I’m being honest, is it of little consequence? Situation and context are an important part of this consideration. For example, debating predestination and free will might be appropriate and even beneficial for a couple of mature Christian friends meeting for coffee, but that discussion could be a source of needless dissention and distraction in a Bible study full of new believers.

Unwarranted dogmatism wastes time and resources on silliness that could have been ignored. If the issues that Paul discusses were mere foolishness, why does he bother addressing them at all? I’m guessing that it’s because some contentious person forced him to. There are so many great examples of this in our culture, whether it be the KJV-Only controversy, or those that are convinced that Christ is coming back on September 23rd. By themselves, these might be mostly harmless matters of personal preference, except that many who teach them imply that they are a measure of a Christian’s spiritual health (or by implication, Salvation.) When that happens, leaders who wouldn’t have normally given the controversy serious thought must step in and refute the silly claims to keep weaker Christians from being sucked in. It’s important to understand that it’s not just what you believe, but also how you present those beliefs that might make them destructive to the church.

There is so much more to be said on this topic, but I will finish with the simple observation that the difference between a good discussion and a quarrel is often the role of emotions. For whatever reason, we tend to be over-taken by emotions (the “fight or flight” rush of adrenaline) when someone challenges our deeply held beliefs. When that happens, it’s time to stop, reign in our emotions and take stock. If a discussion is worth having, then we should keep James 1:19 in mind, seeking to understand before we try to be understood. 2 Timothy 2:22-25 gives a beautiful description of what it means to argue in a Christlike way: not quarrelsome, kind, careful teacher, patient endurance of personal insults, with gentle correction of those who are in the wrong.

We must not shy away from speaking the truth, even when it’s hard to hear, and even when it’s unpopular. There are principles worth vigorously defending, especially when the church is plagued with a never-ending stream of wolves spreading false doctrine. However, as mature, and thoughtful Christ-followers, we must choose these battles carefully, with love for others, and the best interests of the church in mind.

–Thomas Hersman

Letter to my children

My Dear Children,

You are growing up before my eyes, and time, indifferent to the sentiments of a father, sees you moment by moment closer to the unavoidable day when you walk out of my arms and into the world. Until that time comes, it is my deepest joy, and most consuming challenge to help you become thinkers, believers, and earth-shaking Christ-followers.

I’m making more than my fair share of mistakes. Sometimes I will discipline when grace would have been more appropriate. Other times I will give grace when I should have been stricter. (Though I suspect you’ll be okay with that one) Sometimes I just won’t have a clue what to do or say, though I may pretend otherwise. Though I want to be the steadfast example for you to follow, I will fall short of that many times. I am after all human: stubborn, selfish, and sinful.

Our culture will do its best to turn you against me. Or, at least to get you to reject what I have taught you as outdated, disagreeable, and even immoral to your generation’s palate. Your tendency will be to fixate on the mistakes that I make, while resolving not to make the same ones in your own life or with your own children some day. That’s fine. I would rather you learn from my mistakes, than to repeat them. Just remember, as I have learned, while you are focused on mine, you’ll have your own to make.

I will do my best to blaze out a path for you through the wilderness of confusion that our culture has created, but fortunately, I offer you something more reliable than myself to build your life upon – a saving relationship with Jesus Christ, and a worldview built upon the timeless truth of His Word. He will never let you down, but I’m going to be honest, opposing opinions will seem rather convincing at times as they play your emotions and sinful nature against you. Enter here the first bit of Dad advice: Usually in life, the best choices aren’t all that appealing at first glance.

Godless culture says follow your heart, but God tells us (as does our own experience, if we are being honest) that our hearts are corrupted by sin, rebellion, and selfishness. In reality “Follow your heart” is among the dumbest bits of advice anyone could give. Follow Christ. He will remake your heart, and guide you in wisdom.

They say that the key to happiness is to discover and live out who you are deep inside. In truth, we are all experts at self-deception, and when we look inside, we usually see what we want to see. We need an objective observer, and the only one qualified is our Creator. True happiness comes from finding the identity, purpose, and destiny for which He designed us.

Culture tells us that we deserve to have instant gratification of our physical desires. In reality, instant gratification leaves us less satisfied, adding to our dissatisfaction a whole new set of troubles. It’s like giving salt water to a someone dying of thirst. In Christ, we find the deeper, more enriched life that we truly need. Our desires are fulfilled at a time and occasion when we can enjoy them in the fullest and richest way. That is the good life.

They say that resisting temptation is a sin against your authentic self. God says you are more than your temptations, and that He will give you the strength to overcome them. Yes, it’s a hard, seemingly endless struggle; we expect nothing less as fallen humans. Anyone who says a lifetime of saying “No,” to temptation is easy is doing it wrong.

They say that love is an emotion that ebbs and flows, God says that love is a self-sacrificing choice that is tenacious and gritty, hanging on despite difficult circumstances, and compelling us to honor our commitments even when it ceases to be enjoyable. True love has the audacity to love richer and deeper than even the person that we love wants us to – much like God’s love for us.

They say that making bad decisions is part of growing up. If that is others’ experience, it doesn’t have to be yours. Wise people take instruction to heart, and realize that there are some mistakes that are simply too costly to make. You can learn from both the good and bad choices of others, and from the wisdom of God’s Word.

I say all this knowing that, whether by misjudgment, or a skirmish lost with sin, you are going to have failures. The measure of your character won’t be found in your perfection, but in your resolve to keep getting up after you fallen more times than you can count. God will give you the strength. You must surrender the will, with a humble heart. When you find yourself drowning in the results of a sin or mistake, remember that while some choices do have lasting consequences, it’s never too late to start making wise choices from this point forward. And remember, there is no circumstance so bad that you can’t make it worse. So get up, dust yourself off, and keep moving. (in the right direction)

If I could sum this all up, it would be to say this: Whenever in doubt, cling to what you know, not what you feel. Contrary to what movies and TV show, feelings are as unstable as the ocean in a storm, and letting them dictate your choices is every bit as insane as trying to lay bricks on top of seawater. Emotions deceive. Truth is your harbor in the storm.

I must confess that I was scared to death at the very thought of being a father. (Sometimes I still am) That’s because the way that I lead you has eternal impact, both good and bad. Now that you are here, I can’t imagine life any different. “Daddy” is the most honored title I have or will ever will hold, and I will do my best to give you everything I have. I will one day send you out as a lamb among wolves, and with the same advice as Christ gave his Disciples: “Be as clever as a snake, and as innocent as a dove.”

–Thomas Hersman

Empathy or Truth?

Have you noticed the number of advertisements that rely on sappiness to sell ordinary products like air fresheners, razors, soft drinks, and soap? Creating an emotional connection between a product and a customer is a powerful sales technique. The same is true of ideas. Humans seem to be hard-wired to respond to emotion over sound reason, and so emotional appeals often hide serious error. With few exceptions, the greatest theological blunders of modern Christianity are emotion driven. That is especially true as the church struggles to maintain Biblical moral standards in a society in open rebellion against God. And, once again, new philosophies on gender, sex, and morality aren’t usually furthered by convincing argument and evidence, but by emotions. Often these emotional tactics are disguised to look very reasonable, and it’s our job to call them out.

My case study for emotional manipulation disguised as reason is this video about empathy from the Lifehacker website. On its face, it seems like a bit of good, commonsense advice for self-improvement. After all, who but a social brute would have a problem with empathy? But this short video has some very big problems. It begins with the declaration that “we all live in our own realities” which are the only ones that we can “truly know.” In that small statement are hidden some very big worldview assumptions, and it appears that perhaps they’ve confused the perception of reality with reality itself. Not a fantastic start. Much of the video, in truth, contains solid practical advice for engaging with people of differing points of view. I could even get on board with the end goal of “challeng[ing] prejudice” – if I know what they mean by prejudice. However, the sure sign that something is amiss is the idea that we ought to be “expand[ing] our moral universe,” so that we won’t “draw lines in the sand that prevent us from growing.” Now we realize that there is something more going on here than simply an attempt to get people to behave humanely to each other. The video is trying to use empathy as a method of shifting its audience’s perception of what constitutes truth. It makes an epistemic (having to do with the nature of knowledge) claim, inside an emotional wrapper.

Empathy is an important trait for each one of us to embrace, but it’s a very poor method for discovering truth. Consider for example the shooting of Trayvon Martin, and the trial of George Zimmerman, back in 2012. Both the prosecution and the defense attempted to paint each man in turn as an ordinary person caught up in tragic circumstances outside his control. And, it worked. Most people picked their side based upon the man with which they most empathized. But you would need something more had you been on the jury. You might have felt genuine empathy for both, but the only thing that mattered is what really happened. How did the defendant’s actions measure up to the law?

Secular culture appeals to empathy and inclusivity as a principle for pushing Christians to abandon objective morality, because while it requires no rational defense, it taps into a whole host of powerful emotions such as the desire to be kind, the desire to believe the best about loved ones, or the simple desire to be perceived as progressive. However, as truth-determining principles, empathy and inclusivity are rationally absurd. First, they commit the fallacy of the golden mean, which incorrectly assumes that within a plurality of perspectives, the truth must be a compromise between them all. However, reality isn’t determined by democratic means. It is very much possible (indeed likely) that the vast majority of opinions aren’t even a little true. Second, the principle is self-defeating. If I believe that the correct view is one that doesn’t exclude anyone, then I am being exclusive of those who aren’t inclusive. Therefore, I’ve become exclusive myself, and must therefore be excluded… Dizzy yet? Finally, no one actually believes that every other person’s opinions, experiences, and ideas deserve to be counted. This principle is only applied when convenient. If you doubt me, watch the empathy video again and imagine that the person you are speaking to is Jeffrey Dahmer.

The appeal to empathy has been a powerful tool in the effort to get Christians to abandon Biblical morality, because it mixes a great deal of truth with just enough falsehood to be destructive. When we struggle with watching our loved-ones choose sinful lifestyles, we want them to be “okay.” I have lost track of the number of stories I’ve heard that go something like, “I used to think homosexuality was wrong, but then my brother came out and I realized that he’s just an ordinary guy.” Or, “I used to think that transgenderism was wrong, but then I got to know my cousin and saw the struggle that she has, and realized that there is no way that God could want her to be anything but what she is on the inside.” These are conclusions drawn from empathy, not truth, and they represent a very nice, but terribly mistaken individual!

Empathy is a virtue that all believers ought to embrace in the example of Christ, but we should never allow it to compete with God’s Word when deciding moral standards. Christ provided the greatest example of empathy when He came to earth to experience life from a human perspective, but He came to proclaim truth to the enslaved, not to bend moral law because He felt sorry for us. Empathy allows us to relate others’ struggles to our own, and encourages patience. Understanding another person’s beliefs from their own perspective keeps us from making incorrect assumptions about them, and that insight is important to understanding how best to reach them with Christ’s love. But it doesn’t change what is true. We don’t live in our own “moral universe” to be molded by a plurality of opinions. While our perspectives of reality may be altered by our biases, we must never forget that truth (reality) is the final measure. Objective morality draws its own lines in the sand, and we all get to decide which side we end up on. It is the opposite of love to attempt to obscure those lines because we don’t want a person drowning in sin to feel bad about themselves.

Our culture thrives on the new, the inclusive, and the pluralistic. As believers, we constantly risk being painted as outdated heartless bigots that don’t care about others. We should do everything we can through God’s grace to make sure that isn’t true, while understanding that true love never encourages another person to destroy her life and eternal soul for immediate pleasure. The true reflection of Christ’s example is that we don’t condemn, but we come alongside those who are in bondage to sin and show them that there is a new and better life in Jesus Christ.

–Thomas Hersman

Wanted: Bible Scholars

American Christians are surrounded by the Bible. We have copies of it on our phones, tablets, and computers, in more translations than we can count. A 2012 Lifeway poll revealed that most American Christians have at least 3 paper copies of the Bible. We put verses on our walls, our car bumpers, our Facebook pages, and our jewelry. Clearly, Christians love our Bibles – or do we? With all the resources that we have available, the numerous versions, and the study and reading apps, every indication seems to be that while Christians are swimming in Bibles, we read, understand, and apply God’s Word less in our lives than we ever have in the past.

Earlier this year, the American Culture and Faith Institute performed a nationwide study of worldviews, and found that less than one third of Born Again Christians have a Christian worldview, less than one half read the Bible at least once a week, and less than half believe the Bible “contains and conveys absolute moral truths.”  What is happening? If we are buying Bibles, why aren’t we reading them? Why aren’t we being molded by the truth of Scripture? The problem is that most Christians only engage God’s Word at the surface, dipping into a handful of select verses which, isolated from proper context and meaning, create a version of Christianity fashioned in our own image. We are languishing in Scriptural malnutrition.

And, lest we saddle our high horses, let’s be honest, this isn’t just a problem for “liberal” Christianity. All of us define essential Christianity, (i.e., what we think a “real” Christians looks like and cares about most) within the influence of the group of Christians that we spent the most time among. However, that perception may at best be incomplete, and in many examples, is entangled in secular humanist thinking, extrabiblical political ideologies, or simply the wish to condemn others’ sin and leave ours comfortably unaddressed. Such entrenched thinking brings us to stretch and massage a few proof texts that support our ideas while we ignore the big picture that Scripture paints. Whether it’s to support utilitarian political goals, to attack those who challenge our preconceptions, or to simply remain comfortably unchanged in ignorance and sin, Christians will rattle off proof-texts with neither the desire or ability to explain how they actually apply. It’s the Google approach to Bible study. You question my views, so I Google “Bible verses that prove…” and regurgitate the references, ignorant of correct context, and sometimes laughably outside the author’s original intent.

There is good news, though. We have hope. But that requires two things: First, that we surrender our wills to God’s Word. His Word is the hammer and anvil, and we are the metal to be forged. No doctrine, creed, attitude, behavior, idea, political cause or affiliation escapes the strike of that Hammer. It is the measure of Truth, and nothing else meets muster. It doesn’t matter what you’ve been taught. It doesn’t matter what your parents, pastor, or psychologist believes, it doesn’t matter what your intuition tells you, or your feelings say. The scales always crash down on the side of God’s Word. Nothing competes for His authority. That is the only posture in which a Christian should approach Scripture – anything less is a mockery. It’s not God’s Word and… It’s God’s Word only.

The next step is that we learn to be Bible scholars. No, I don’t mean that we all must go off to college, and study Greek, Latin, and Hebrew. However, in our eagerness to make Scripture accessible, I believe we’ve actually encouraged Scriptural illiteracy. “You don’t have to be a scholar to understand the Bible” has become “you don’t need to put in any effort at all.” Like a child who memorizes lines from a poem but has no idea what it means, Scripture can only affect us to the degree that we understand it. The Bible isn’t a magical book. We can’t speak the words and ignore the meaning while expecting it to change us. While the Holy Spirit is our teacher, I find no reason to believe that His role is to make up for our intellectual laziness, or our intentional ignorance.

You and I have an almost embarrassing (considering our generation’s widespread ignorance) number of Biblical resources at our fingertips of which previous generations could only dream. We get to benefit from others’ hard work, and we ought to take full advantage. An average person can do word studies, and investigate the perspectives and findings of generations of Christian scholars and thinkers with just a few clicks of a mouse. So, what I would like to do is leave you with a few suggestions:

  • Start with a good study Bible. They give you valuable notes, cross-references, and clarifying information, right on the page with the text. I have used the ESV Study Bible for several years, and like it for its wide variety of resources. The MacArthur Study Bible is a solid choice as well.
  • Get access to a good commentary. Commentaries give you reliable, clarifying information about each passage, and are extremely useful when reading difficult to understand verses. There are several websites such as Blue Letter Bible, Bible Gateway, and org that offer free access to older commentaries. However, I have come to appreciate the Abridged Expositor’s Commentary because it’s reasonably priced, compact, but packed with good information.
  • A good Bible dictionary will help you understand the cultures, people, and places that relate to Scripture.
  • Make use of a website like Blue Letter Bible. This site allows you to look up a passage of Scripture, and investigate the original languages, word for word. You can select a Greek or Hebrew word and see it’s literal meaning, where it is used elsewhere in Scripture, and how it is translated in each of those passages.
  • Read a good introduction to Biblical interpretation such as How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth

Not every passage of Scripture requires an in-depth study of each word (in everyday Bible reading), but these resources will get you on the right path to understanding difficult passages. They help to answer some important questions such as: What is the big picture of this topic in Scripture? Does my understanding of the passage differ from the informed commentaries that I read? (While it may be possible that you are right and everyone else has gotten it wrong through the centuries, it’s unlikely) What does the key word in the passage mean in Greek or Hebrew? Often, we read meaning into words that isn’t communicated by the original language. What is the immediate context of the passage? Does my understanding fit with the author’s flow of ideas, or is it out of place? Do the historical circumstances of the passage inform its meaning? Though space doesn’t allow me to list them, I can think of numerous situations where answering these questions would correct a misinterpretation of Scripture.

Finally, I would like to urge Christians to read the entire Bible through, and not just favorite books and passages. Every book is inspired by God, and every book provides Spiritual nutrients and completes the picture of God’s purpose and will for mankind.

So, these are the tools. Our purpose is to know God better, and to be changed by Scripture. He is speaking to us, and we have His Word in our hands. Will we pay attention?

–Thomas Hersman

If I were the Devil

If I were the Devil, I would find a way to make Christians comfortably unaware of deception by getting them to make emotions the measure of truth. I would destroy the ability of God’s Word to change their lives (even though they quoted it on a daily basis) by persuading them that the knowledge and skill to meaningfully understand and apply it is unnecessary and even harmful. I would teach them to take pride in their own ignorance, and judge truth by their own experiences. Then under the pretense of teaching the Bible, I would carefully emphasis some passages out of context, and skip over many others so that even while they think they are hearing God’s Word, they are actually hearing what they want to hear – or what I want them to hear. They would be able to quote the Bible chapter and verse, but its meaning would be lost to them. God’s Word would be little more to them than a series of bumper sticker slogans, powerless to challenge or change them.

I would give them an attitude of suspicion toward everyone outside their circle of like-minded friends. They would waste endless effort attacking sincere Christ-followers from other theological traditions, while tolerating sin and error in their own circle. I would cultivate in them an unteachable attitude, so they would regard the wisdom passed down to them by spiritual and intellectual giants of little worth in comparison to their own unqualified opinions. I would persuade them that accountability is only for the weak, and that God’s approval of their lifestyles can be proven by emotional experiences. Being a Christian would be more about fitting in with a religious subculture than conforming to God’s will. As a result, fellow believers who dare to challenge them would be quickly expelled as outsiders; guilty of “sowing discord” and those who don’t rock the boat would live comfortably unchallenged. I would create a set of pet issues, sins that deserve special attention, so that these Christians can spend their days self righteous in the stand they’ve taken against sin, when in reality they’ve only been preaching against other people’s sins, and ignoring their own.

Finally, I would inextricably infuse their Christianity with political ideology, then slowly remove the Christianity until all that was left was religious political fervor. They would come to believe that the ability of the church to accomplish the Great Commission, is tied to the success of one political ideology, and they would never again doubt that God wants their favorite politician in power. I would convince them that God’s plan for the church is that they win elections and pass laws at whatever cost. I would persuade them that fervent patriotism is a suitable substitute for cumbersome righteousness, as long as they make sure to oppose abortion and gay marriage. I would goad them to label anyone who tries to return them to God’s Word, an out of touch holier-than-thou Pharisee. I would convince them to discard Biblical thinking as being too idealistic, and to replace it with comfortable practicality. They would never know the difference, because the Bible they read, and indeed the Christ that they follow always perfectly reflects their own biases, assumptions, and perspective.
In other words, if I were the Devil, I would keep doing what I am doing now.

–Thomas Hersman

“You Don’t Have to be the Weaker Brother”

Christianity isn’t about dos and don’ts. That’s true, sort of. Our salvation hangs upon God’s grace and not our ability to behave perfectly. Yet, as James reminds us, true faith is validated by actions. (James 2:18) For that reason, the question of “How ought we to live?” is essential for our daily lives. If you’ve been around Christendom for any length of time, you will know that there has been no little disagreement among Christians regarding the particular answers to that question. The Apostle Paul addresses one such dispute in I Corinthians 8, and it is here that he outlines for what modern Christians label “the weaker brother principle.” However, if we misapply this passage, it can turn into a de facto endorsement of legalism.

The Christian ethical system consists not merely of a black and white formula for right and wrong. True, we are given some iron-clad commands in Scripture such as don’t murder and don’t commit adultery, but many of our choices are governed by general principles, and by consciences trained by the Holy Spirit. How those influences fit together isn’t always clear, and that leaves some room for disagreement. In I Corinthians 8, Paul addresses one such disagreement that had arisen in the Corinthian church over whether Christians should eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols. The thing that every Christians ought to know is that an idol is just a lump of stone unable to curse or bless. However, many of the believers in Corinth still retained superstitions regarding the power of the idols, and to their own consciences, even though there was no Biblical reason to believe so, it seemed wrong to eat idol meat. Paul calls this a “weak conscience.” Paul’s council (the weaker brother principle) calls for mature Christians to sacrifice their own Christian liberty in cases where they risk leading others to violate their own consciences.

While the idol meat thing isn’t particularly relevant for 21st century America, this principle is still very important for today’s believers, because the conscience is such an important part of how humans perceive wrongdoing. While the term “weak conscience” implies imperfection that will be resolved through growth, Paul also speaks of how the conscience can be desensitized like cauterized skin (I Tim. 4:2). The clear implication is that a believer should never violate his conscience, or encourage another to do so, because even when there is room for growth, it still remains God’s tool for communicating that a person has done something wrong.

However, the weaker brother principle doesn’t apply every time there is a question about what is permissible in the Christian walk. If that were the case, then the entire body of believers would have to take the most restrictive option whenever there is a question, which is mandated legalism. Looking to the context of Scripture, we can make some observations that allow us to properly apply the principle:

  • The weaker brother is someone whose conscience, due to immaturity and/or incomplete learning, causes him to think without Scriptural warrant, that something is wrong. Mature Christians have the responsibility to allow him to grow at the Holy Spirit’s pace, without pressuring him, or leading him to violate his conscience.
  • It is not a person deciding, based upon his personal walk with God, to adopt an individual standard that is more restrictive than what is universally prescribed for Christians in Scripture. For example, I can’t use the principle to demand that others not drink simply because my personal conviction is that I abstain completely from alcohol.
  • The implication in Scripture is that the goal for the weaker brother is that he become strong, not that he remain content where he is, and demand that other believers accommodate him. Ideally, Christians should be able to establish their own convictions regarding debatable issues between themselves and God without getting hung up on people that believe differently. (Romans 14:3-8)
  • Taking a legalistic stance “just to be safe” isn’t what we are called to do. In fact, legalism is considered a weaker position than discerning where God’s will is for us (Romans 14:2). Some Christians seem to get this backward, by implying, for example, that the Christians who don’t watch TV at all are stronger than the ones who simply exercise wisdom in what they watch.
  • The weaker brother isn’t simply someone who is offended because another Christian has a different viewpoint regarding where the church ought to stand on a debatable issue. These types of disagreements should be resolved according to other principles of Scripture, under which both sides should be willing to give up their own agendas for the sake of love for each other, God, and a desire for unity.

The overarching theme of these passages is that the good of the body is more important than an individual’s desires. That means that even if we are technically in the right, it’s usually up to the mature believers to make compromises to settle disputes when necessary, and to accommodate the less mature. Even so, we should all work to understand the proper application of the weaker brother principle, and its limits, so that we don’t steer into either of the two extremes of legalism or license. Both are destructive, and neither are best for the advancement of God’s kingdom.

–Thomas Hersman

‘How “True” is Your Intuition?’

How would you rate your intuition? You know, that sixth sense that you get about people or situations, which you can’t quite define. Intuition is as human as walking upright on two legs. We all learn to trust it, and I would venture to guess that most of us consider it highly reliable. Those whose occupations depend upon intuition in life or death situations have overwhelming justification to declare their own intuition of greater value than a million books or pontificators. Or so it might seem. The question is, does a believer’s intuition uncover truth and reveal proper moral choices? Can we always trust our intuition?

I have written and spoken many times about the dangers of living the Christian life based upon feelings, but intuition deserves a separate treatment. Clearly, it is a type of feeling, but also much more. Perhaps we can call it “informed feeling.” Reliable intuition comes from years of experience making choices and witnessing the outcome. Our brains calculate the sum total of those experiences, process them faster than we can consciously work though them point by point, and give us the result through a distinct feeling, or sense. That sense allows law enforcement and military members to predict threats. It gives investigators that gut feeling that a situation deserves further scrutiny. Even with years of education, medical professionals may rely upon it to make a necessarily quick choice between several available treatment options. Even with less at stake, occupations in sales, investments, animal stock breeding, and many others succeed or fail largely according to intuition. These are not people who are by nature irrational or overly emotional, but intuition is foundational to their daily lives and sometimes begins to form the core of their personal system for separating truth from fiction. However, in a culture that constantly says “believe in yourself,” and “trust your instincts,” we all have permission to rely heavily upon our own intuitions to read others and decide what is right or wrong.

Clearly intuition is itself good in the correct context, but it does have some severe limitations. This article in the Harvard Business Review by Connson Chou Locke provides some of those limits in a business context. In order to have reliable intuition a person needs no less than ten years’ experience making specifically relevant decisions with “rapid and accurate feedback.” If a person’s experience is not specifically relevant, his feedback incorrect or sparse, then his intuition cannot be trusted. That implies that intuition in one field of expertise does not automatically transfer to another. Intuition is further limited in that it works best only in instances that “lack clear decision rules or [have] few objective criteria.” Scripture provides the objective criteria for deciding what is true and what is right, and though intuition may figure into specific applications of Biblical principles, those principles must come from Scripture unfiltered by our presuppositions.

Jeremiah 17:9 tells us that the “heart of man is deceitful” and “desperately sick.” Within the scope of that truth is perhaps the best reason that we have to make sure that our choices are grounded in the truth of Scripture above all else – we humans are highly vulnerable to fooling ourselves. We aren’t particularly good at noticing when our gut instinct isn’t informed intuition at all, but some other strong passion such as fear. The lusts and desires of sin fool us into believing that our rationalizations are true and consistent with God’s will, and sometimes our minds simply give us a wrong interpretation of our experience. I once had a rather lively discussion with a well driller who was convinced that “witching” for water had for the entirety of his successful career predicted the best places to drill. I explained to him that an experienced well-digger drilling over an area full of underground water sources has a high probability of hitting water. I explained to him how confirmation bias distorts our memories, but that debunked unscientific belief persisted in an otherwise reasonable person. Another example is the gambler’s fallacy that tells us intuitively, albeit wrongly, that if I have lost the coin toss five times in a row, the chances are greater this next throw that I’ll win. Consider also the birthday paradox in which we find counterintuitively that in a group of 23 people the seemingly unlikely possibility of finding two people with the same birthday is actually 50%. (In a group of 75, that probably rises to 99.9%) In reality, our intuition is often not nearly as trustworthy as we might think, and we need something more when determining what is true and false, or right and wrong.

In practice, intuition is primarily concerned with what works and not what is true. That means it often provides biased results. Loving your friends and hating your enemies works, but that is not what God expects of us. Killing people off that are a “burden” and have low “quality of life,” might make practical sense, but violates Scriptural principles. Living the Christian life depends upon the ability to know and act upon truth, and that goal often clashes with mere utility. The utilitarian nature of intuition actually biases it against discovering truth. To be useful, intuition must provide a quick answer the first time with limited deliberation. If some new information challenges the validity of one intuitive decision, it attacks my confidence in my whole system of intuition. It’s easiest to simply defend and deny that I was wrong than to face an uncomfortable readjustment of my foundational beliefs.

Scripture affirms time and time again that the core structure of our moral and doctrinal thinking should be God’s Word. Psalm 19:7-9 tells us that Scripture is: perfect, sure, right, pure, enlightening, clean, and true. Jesus tells us that those who love Him obey His word (Jn. 14:23). 2 Timothy 3:16-17 gives the prescription of Scripture for teaching, correction, training in righteousness, and equipping for the Christian life. For believers, when the question is what ought I to do, or what ought I to believe, the answer begins and ends with the simple truth of Scripture. Any system of thought that adds our own feelings or intuitions into the equation falls prey to the errors and limitations discussed above.

Humanity’s hearts are depraved, and its cultures biased against the truth. The worse things get, the more that God’s Word becomes inconvenient to our modern sensibilities. That is of course why God gave us his Word, instead of leaving us to figure it out on our own. His Word, is the timeless truth unaffected by the corruption over time of a race in open rebellion to God’s authority.

–Thomas Hersman

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