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 Or, at least to get you to reject what I have taught you as outdated, disagreeable, and even immoral to your generation’s palate.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

“A Baptism Story”

Stories are powerful. A good story reaches across cultural boundaries and draws us in. For better or worse, stories are the primary tool that popular culture uses to communicate its version of life, love and reality. It’s almost as if the attraction of a good story is written into our DNA, and when we fall under that spell, our walls and preconceptions weaken. We learn without realizing it, and we are persuaded without an obvious argument. For Christians, stories hold great significance. Much of the Bible is written as a narrative, and Christ himself often used stories to teach. There is one story in particular, that every believer carries around in his or her back pocket that is uniquely special to each individual, and that is our personal testimony. The question is, are we making proper use of it?

Growing up in evangelical Christendom, I learned that testimonies had special power; the more dramatic and sensational they were the better. Good testimonies got you an audience. Great testimonies made you a minor superstar. The two main components of a good testimony were grievous sins in your past, and a miraculous, dramatic conversion. Those points were so well-reinforced that on at least one occasion, I remember a scandal where a person got caught padding his testimony like a bad resume, adding a couple of sins that weren’t actually there. You may now pause to ponder the irony for a moment.

The problem was, of course, that I had a lame testimony. No dramatic story of conversion. I was a pastor’s kid saved at a young age, so no big sins from which God called me. In fact, my own conversion was so non-eventful that I don’t remember the specifics. Have no fear, it actually happened, the problem is that I was at the altar in so many camp meetings and revivals that I didn’t even know which time counts as the first. Not the sort of stuff that gets you called up to podium on last night of revival, right?

And don’t get me started on my baptism. Most people are baptized in their home church, with family and friends around as they declare their intent to be a Christ-follower. Me? Not so much. I was baptized as a preteen, in the muddy Greenbrier River at camp meeting. For some reason that now escapes me, none of my family was there. In fact, I barely knew anyone in the group, including the pastor that performed the baptism. To make the whole situation a little more awkward, when my turn arrived, it came to the attention of some of the more motherly individuals in attendance that I lacked the proper footwear, and they insisted that I borrow some. So, I was baptized by strangers in a muddy river wearing a borrowed pair of girl’s flip flops. Inspiring, isn’t it?

Years later, I began to entertain the thought of a redo. This time I would be baptized the right way. Family, friends, video testimony, inspirational music, heated baptismal – the whole nine yards. That of course, is not really the way that baptism is supposed to work. I don’t think there is such a thing as baptism upgrades. What matters is that we meant what we were saying when our heads dipped under the water. In time, my mind changed as I began to love my baptism story for what it is, one small example of the larger way that God has worked in my life. In the awkwardness and foreignness of being isolated from the normal support structures that many people take for granted, in the loneliness of having to walk alone, and even in the uncertainty and sense of impermanence that comes from existing in an environment that belongs to another. It all just somehow works.

The lie that I had long believed is that my story wasn’t powerful because it wasn’t sensational. Without in any way diminishing those that have been saved dramatically from grievous sins, we need to recognize that the grace of God is no less present in the lives of those whom He kept from sin, than it is in those whom He brought out of sin. Furthermore, the obvious changes that happen at the beginning of a believer’s journey are only part of the story. While being saved from alcohol and drug abuse or promiscuity are truly miraculous expressions of God’s grace, its slow work over time – the grueling hammer and chisel of the Holy Spirit refining and purifying deeply entangling sins – is a story that must be told as well. Sometimes it’s much easier to stop doing the “big” sins, than it is to make a thousand small choices daily to be changed in the “little” things, and it is only by God’s power that it ever happens.

One of the most powerful assurances for our faith is the ability to look back in time and appreciate that “though I once was blind, now I can see.” Every believer should be able to do that, looking back one, two, five, or ten years. It’s a reflection of a living and breathing continual work of the Holy Spirit. It’s not enough to simply remember that 45 years ago God helped you to stop drinking. How has he changed you in the past year? Through our own confidence in God’s life changing work, we have a launching point to share more than just sensationalism, but the real, down-to-earth reality of a God who helps us become something vastly greater than ever we could be on our own.

That’s why I love my baptism story. To me, it’s weird and unusual, with a ting of painful awkwardness. But, it’s my story, which God is writing. It reminds me that often He doesn’t want things to happen the way we think they ought. He likes to keep us on our toes and out of our comfort zones, because that is when we know best that He gets the credit for the good that results. Though I may have at one time thought I needed a baptism redo, He continues to remind me that the work represented in that ceremony is real and genuine and continues to this day in spite of all the ways that I have thrown a wrench in the gears or gotten off course.

I hope that you truly appreciate the story of grace in your life, whether or not it is over-the-top dramatic, or just simple and profound. It is a story that needs to be told, and a powerful personal expression of what it means for you to be a follower of Jesus Christ. It is confirmation of the simple fact that there are no mundane stories of grace. When God transforms a life, it is a truly spectacular show.

–Thomas Hersman

“The Cross and the Antihero”

One of my favorite movies of all time is the classic western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance with John Wayne and James Stewart. It provides an engaging contrast between the two classic ideas of the hero and the antihero. Jimmy Stewart’s character is a young, idealistic lawyer, the epitome of truth, justice, and the American way. John Wayne is a practical, rough-around-the-edges cowboy who can fight, shoot, is tough enough to survive the frontier, but he lacks his counterpart’s idealistic ambitions. At the story’s climax, the anti-hero has what it takes to kill the bad guy, while the hero gets all the credit. (Sorry if I spoiled the plot, but it came out in 1962. You’ve had plenty of time to see it.) The anti-hero archetype is becoming ever more preferred in popular culture. Is it simply that we relate to a flawed character acting heroically, rather than the polished perfection of the classic hero? Perhaps, but I think it reflects something deeper in our hearts, a desire to be good, but not too good. We want to be moral enough to live with ourselves, but we still want to enjoy a vice here and there. In short, we want to be moral, but not holy.

The difference between holiness and morality is subtle. Christians often conflate the two ideas, because for us, they are related. However, that is not always the case in the broader world of ideas. Thus, we should start by observing that while morality is system based, holiness is Scripture based. Getting back to our example of the anti-hero for a second, we can see that we might be right to describe him as moral. He has as code of honor that guides his life, and while it permits violence and drunkenness, it still drives him to save the life of an innocent man and to act unselfishly at times. Under his personal code, to observers, he exist as a good and moral man, especially in contrast to the villain. By itself, a moral code is simply a way to reason about right and wrong from a particular set of governing principles, and that leaves plenty of ambiguity about the particulars. For instance, consider situation ethics which claims that any moral command of Scripture can be violated if done out of love. (Through a misapplication of Matt. 22:36-40) When love as an abstract idea takes priority over the specific moral commands of God, our standard of right and wrong extends from our own rationalizations rather than objective truth. However Scripture gives us a moral law, not merely moral guidelines. They may be traceable to the principle of love for God and others, but they are still laws the Christian must follow. Questions about why God gives a moral standard, are secondary to the simple fact that He gave it and we must obey. As Christians working through tough ethical questions, we may use observations from some different ethical systems, but only in the context of applying God-given moral law. Absent a Lawgiver, any ethical system falls prey to the biases of cultural pressure, and the corruption of sin. Always, those ethical systems degrade into reflecting man’s current condition rather than transcending it.

Of course, the Christian life is about so much more that simply following an ethical system. Christians are called to holiness, which is not merely an ethical system, but the process of becoming like Christ. The pursuit of Holiness is life-long and comprehensive. It starts the moment we are Saved, and continues to the gates of Heaven. (2 Cor. 3:18) Holiness by design does not permit us to hold back any part of ourselves. It is an all-or-nothing deal. Everything we do and every decision we make traces back to the pursuit of becoming like Christ. Holiness creates a personal threshold for living that no moral system can (or intends) to achieve. To be moral, in contrast, is a more easily attainable label that comes without the lifelong “daily cross.” (Luke 9:23) Like the anti-hero, a moral person gets to be the good guy, while remaining “true to himself.” Being moral may not always be sunshine and pink unicorns, but it’s much more comfortable and easily achievable than forsaking everything to follow Christ.

It should come as no surprise that while popular culture often accepts a version of morality, it scorns holiness. Man wants to believe of himself that he is a good person, but he wants to write the rules under which that belief is validated. Christianity subverts that goal. In addition to the rise of the antihero, those attitudes are evident in popular culture’s depiction of dedicated Christians. The go-to characterization is to simply label them all hypocrites, but a more subtle subversion comes through the portrayal of Christian morality as too wooden, too literal, and simply ill-equipped to handle the complexities the real world, just as Jimmy Stewart’s idealism wasn’t enough to win a gunfight. While some of this bad publicity may well be earned, it is not simply the case, as claimed by the fake Gandhi quote, that the secular world has a problem with Christians merely because they aren’t enough like Christ. The sinful heart recoils from the idea that we must sacrifice ourselves to become the people God intends for us to be, and attacks it with ridicule and scorn.

When a believer adopts these attitudes, we don’t have to look far to see the devastating results. Aiming at morality rather than holiness allows a person to love, but not sacrificially, do good, but not only good, be counted a Christ-follower, but still fit comfortably in society. It means that some sins are okay because they are a part of the authentic me. Even if it turns out that I need reworked here and there, I never have the discomfort of being transformed. Ultimately, we become our own anti-heroes. We still get to credit ourselves for being the good guy, and for being heroic, while embracing the ways in which we willingly fall short of God’s intended plan.

Holiness results in morality, but being moral does not make one holy. Only the Holy Spirit working in our lives can do that. The question is what path will we choose? Will we be made into heroes or anti-heroes?

–Thomas Hersman

“As One Hotdog Sharpens Another”

Proverbs 27:17 wisely observes (it’s a proverb, so you know it’s wise), “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.” Visualize that for a moment. The blade of an ax against a file, sparks fly, but the result is a razor edge. The idea is that the friction of opposing ideas, and the challenge of spirited discourse results in both participants becoming better for the experience. My how that has changed! Think for a second. How many people do you know with whom you can have a spirited disagreement on meaningful subjects (no, sports don’t count) and still remain good friends? The irony of it all is that with social media, we are communicating more with a greater number of people, but meaningful discourse appears to be at an all-time low. While that may permit comfortable living with unquestioned ideas about what is true and the way the world is, are we ultimately better off as individuals and as Christ-followers?

Certainly, we all have seen this done wrong, and perhaps that is why our instinct is to avoid disagreement at all cost. In 2 Timothy 2:23-26 Paul cautions Timothy against entering into “foolish, ignorant controversies.” That is a warning that all Christians ought to heed, but many have not to the detriment of the entire church. Contextually, we can identify the object of this passage as those who adopt a conceited, argumentative attitude, who have no desire to know the truth, and who simply want to argue for the sake of arguing. They do not have their own, fellow Christians’, or the church’s best interests in mind. Basically, they are what we might call a “troll” today. No good ever comes from the strife and contention they stir up.

Scripture calls us to unity in Christ, and I believe it is a mistake to think that unity means avoiding all disagreement. True unity is found in love that transcends differences, rather than simply pretending that they aren’t there. Strong relationships use differences to sharpen one another, to the betterment of individuals and the enrichment of our understanding of the truth.

Though our society and our churches pride themselves in valuing diversity, it seems to me that most people surround themselves with like-minded individuals because we much prefer continual affirmation, to facing probing questions about what we say and believe. Consequently, we’ve replaced “iron sharpening iron” with one hotdog sharpening another. We go through the motions, consuming the reciprocal admiration and affirmation from our circle of friends, and never face the challenge of examining our beliefs from different perspectives. Intellectually, we’re just a couple of limp hotdogs flopping against each other.

The natural question then, is what does it matter? Why should we care what our fellow members of the Body of Christ believe as long as they love Jesus? Being heavily influenced by popular culture that tells us to stay off important topics with friends, most of us are tempted to fall to the path of least resistance. I believe that has fostered a prevailing hostility toward worldview thinking in the church. Like a muscle that withers from lack of use, we have gotten to the place where scriptural reasoning has been replaced by simple emotions. It’s so much easier to say “I feel,” than it is to say “I believe, and here is why…” We react with negative emotions when faced with challenges to our own worldview, and we feel the need to glaze over ideological differences with friends out of fear that it will strain relationships. Most of us never learn to have a civil dialog that remains centered on ideas, avoids personal attacks, and remains a positive experience.

That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a whole lot of talking going on, but in most cases it’s not a true dialog. Modern social media has made it easier than ever to fire off our thoughts and ideas into the ether while the target of these ideological mortars remain ambiguous, and we shield ourselves from rebuttal. It’s not a dialog, it’s just people lobbing shots at each other. This is a problem that predates social media, however. It’s also why we have two gazillion different Christian denominations, because we aren’t all that good at disagreeing agreeably. Growing up in Evangelical Christendom, often all I ever heard about different denominational beliefs were strawmen and caricatures. Mind you, I’m not talking about heresies here, but doctrinal beliefs with a long and healthy tradition of Biblical thought. I still know people that believe that the entirety of Christianity’s problems can be solved by eliminating Calvinism, Arminianism, or Baptists. The opportunity to actually dialog with people of differing beliefs changed my perspective even if it didn’t always change my mind. I have learned to respect those who have come to their beliefs honestly, through much thought and prayer, and from them gained knowledge that enriches my own understanding of God’s truth. Therein lies the problem that many denominationally entrenched people face. They don’t want the discomfort of adjusting their worldviews due to a new perspective. To protect themselves they prefer to go on believing that Baptists are all just a bunch of sinning reprobates or Arminians are all trying to earn their own salvation. In my experience, the more I dialog with Biblically informed, thoughtful Christians from different ideological perspectives, the more common ground I discover that would remain obscured if we just sat in our corners lobbing insults at each other.

Truth comes from God and his Word, and a Christian’s understanding of that truth is shaped by the community of believers. In an ideal world, everyone would read the Bible and come to the exact same conclusions, but that has never been the case. As the church progresses through the decades, there are movements and ideas that take root. Some of these have merit, and some, even when possessed by well-meaning people, are inferior and even harmful. The only way that we have to weed out bad ideas is to compare the alternatives, and with the light of Scripture, choose the better option. The dialog of ideas is part of that process, and without it, worldviews stagnate, and bad ideas fester.

At this point, I wish I could insert the entire text of 1 Corinthians 13, because everything that I have said here is a moot point if it’s not done out of love for one another. Without love it’s just a whole lot of obnoxious noise. Love dictates everything we do, and gives us the discernment to know what is appropriate, when it’s appropriate, how much is appropriate, and if a particular relationship isn’t strong enough for healthy dialog on controversial topics. It takes a high level of maturity to be able to set aside emotions, and to realize that a critique of one’s ideas is not the same as an attack on another’s character or an insult to their intellect. However the power of one friend sharpening another is that there is an implication of familiarity, and a mutual understanding and respect that allows two people to interact, not just two ideologies. When that happens, the end goal is not to win an argument or prove how intelligent we are, but to learn, to be enriched, to find ourselves wiser for the process, and ultimately, better able to live our lives for the Glory of the Risen Lord.

–Thomas Hersman

“Righteousness, the Greatest Act of Patriotism”

It is the weekend of July 4th, and it should come as no surprise that my attention would be upon the commemoration of Independence Day. Have no fear, it’s not politics that I have in mind. I am thinking rather of a timeless observation, given to us by Scripture, and understood by many statesmen of the past. The single greatest thing that a person can do in service to his or her country is to live righteously.

In the history of nations, countless attempts to evoke the passion of patriotism include calls for bravery, courage, and sacrificial service. After seven years in the military, I became well acquainted with them. However, I wondered then, as I do now, if we are purposely leaving out a crucial, albeit inconvenient part of rendering service to country. Scripture observes that, “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people.” (Proverbs 14:34) Many of the great minds present at this nation’s founding were strongly aware of the necessity of virtue as well as the particular vulnerability to corrupt character that exists in a self-governing society.  Samuel Adams wrote in a letter to James Warren:

“While the people are virtuous they cannot be subdued; but when once they lose their virtue then will be ready to surrender their liberties to the first external or internal invader.”

Washington reminded the American people in his farewell address:

“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens.”

These men, while intending that this nation not entwine the power of government with the organization of the church, understood that it was up to the church to maintain the people’s moral compass and cultivate their character.

Scripture often warns of the dangers of an unrighteous king. We are reminded in Proverbs 16:12 “It is an abomination to kings to do evil, for the throne is established by righteousness.” This, of course, was directed toward a monarch, but consider the implication for a nation where the power that was once reserved only for kings is now shared by citizens. The average person now bears a much heavier burden of upright character to govern his or her nation wisely. It is in that spirit, I believe that Paul Harvey often observed. “Self-government doesn’t work without self-discipline.”

I don’t know how beneficial it is to speculate on the precise mechanism for how the character of a people results in their own success or failure. Is it God directly altering the outcome of that nation for good or bad, is it simply the cause and effect of moral behavior, or is it both? Certainly, the founders believed that God intervened on their behalf. Patrick Henry famously spoke of “the holy cause of liberty,” and “a just God who presides over the destinies of nations.” Similarly, Washington often credited his unlikely success to Divine Providence, even going as far in a letter to General Nelson as saying:

“The hand of Providence has been so conspicuous in all this, that he must be worse than an infidel that lacks faith, and more than wicked that has not gratitude enough to acknowledge his obligations.”

Conversely, Thomas Jefferson feared God’s judgement upon the nation for tolerating slavery and presciently wrote:

“And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever…”

Lest you are at this point preparing to grab your Bibles and crucifixes to storm D.C. and spray-paint the Ten Commandments all over the National Mall, we must resist the idea that way to spread righteousness or virtue in a society is through political activism and the imposition of external moral standards upon those with immoral hearts. Certainly, that idea is not given in the New Testament. (Rules were different in the Old Testament with an absolute theocracy). The primary influence of the church upon society was always meant to be from the inside out, changing lives one at a time. That’s a lot harder than using political maneuvering to impose laws that last only as long as the religious right maintains 51% of the popular vote. If the church looks into society and sees sin, corruption, and rebellion to God’s laws, the first place it needs to look next is inward. The basket in Matthew 5:16 under which we’ve hidden our light is not a lack of willingness to be involved in politics, it’s a failure to live righteously in view of others so that their attention will be turned to God.

In this nation, the label Christian has come to mean less and less, as the church continues to acquiesce to the darkness around us, rather than purposing to shine thorough it with righteous lives at whatever personal cost. Whether it is the public immorality of those churches (so-called) that openly embrace the wickedness of secular society, or the quiet immorality secretly tolerated in the pews of conservative churches, because “he is such a good tither,” the best thing for ourselves and for our nation is that we repent and return to living lives for God’s glory and in accordance with His Word.

Many Christians in America feel a growing angst regarding the future of the church’s place in society and the questionable status of the liberty we’ve so long enjoyed. I can’t tell you that if you will do this one thing, God’s going to fix it all. I don’t know what His plan is for the future, or what role He’s designated for us. One thing I do know, no plan, scheme, political platform, party, or candidate can save a nation whose citizens despise virtue and celebrate unrighteousness.

Dear fellow Americans, this July 4th, I pray that you will join me in the single greatest act of patriotism that any person can commit. Let us purpose in our hearts to be changed from the inside out into a righteous people that do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly before our God. (Micah 6:8)

–Thomas Hersman

« Older Entries