“The first sin”

Charles Spurgeon said, “Discernment is not knowing the difference between right and wrong. It is knowing the difference between right and almost right.” That line between right and almost right is one that culture’s influencers walk with fine-tuned precision, because no one will drink poison in a bottle with a bright red skull and cross bones painted on it – it has to be mixed with something that our appetites crave.

I sat down with my family to watch the new Disney film Zootopia the other night. It had all that I have come to expect from the Disney name: cute talking animals coexisting in a universe with unanswered existential questions that you hope your child doesn’t start bringing up to you. Zootopia in particular from beginning to end is a grab bag of fashionable cultural causes thinly disguised and tossed together with glaring logical holes that test the limits of believability for even a child’s movie. In spite of the film’s preachiness, you are left with overwhelming sense of irony that in real life, carnivores would devour the other animals, and even within the Zootopia universe, a rabbit would make a terrible police officer.

However, setting that all aside for a moment, I find these personal empowerment themed movies troubling because they preach an “almost truth” that is difficult to detect and correct. We all want our children to dream big, but the way in which they dream can very well determine whether they end up as a saint or a narcissist, whether they work hard to achieve big things, or simply become a legend in their own minds.

An old hymn once posed the question “Is this vile world a friend of grace to help me on to God?” The answer to that question is clear. Not only does secular society not help us to God, it sends us in the opposite direction. Though we share the desire to address some of the same problems, such as low self esteem, hatred, or bullying, culture’s solutions are diametrically opposed to Scripture’s solutions. Secular culture’s path to fulfillment is found in embracing our true selves, being confident in whoever we are, believing that we can do anything, and not allowing others tell us who we can or cannot be. Such notions are completely incompatible with the Christian worldview, and fundamentally incoherent.

We can’t be anything we want to be. Every adult grows up to face the harsh reality that not everyone gets to be president, a famous athlete, a rock star, or an astronaut. Furthermore, despite pop culture’s endless refrain that we must “be ourselves,” no one really believes that. No one gets cut off in traffic by a road rage driver and thinks, well, he’s just being himself, or sees the face of a mass murderer and thinks the same. While society says “be yourself,” it fails to provide a coherent idea of who “myself” really is, and why it is good to be that person instead of something else. Consequently, popular culture has become the default standard, and those aspiring to be themselves are often left simply mimicking what they see modeled.

Modern media, especially children’s media, struggles to provide a coherent positive message regarding self-identity, precisely because it has removed God from the equation. Without an external concept of value, we conclude that the secret of identity and personal worth lies within ourselves. If we truly cling to that presupposition, we have to also conclude that all lifestyles and choices are equally valuable. If that is the case, then there really is no objective difference between the living life as Hitler and living life as Mother Teresa. Both were true to themselves.

Why does mankind insist upon clinging to the muddled idea of subjective self-worth, while preaching it as the one true gospel? Because of the first sin. First chronologically, and first in prevalence. It is the one ugly infection that drives the most secret internal sin along with the most grievous display of hatred towards God and man. I am speaking of course of the singular desire of a person to shake his fist at the God of the universe, stomp his feet, and shout with the defiance of a toddler, “No! I want to do it my way!” It was there when Adam and Eve took the bite of the fruit, believing that their loving Creator was withholding some good thing. It was there when Cain killed his brother. In our society, it is everywhere, as people cast off Biblical moral standards, even to the point of denying the undeniable realities encoded in their DNA.

Scripture gives a robust answer to the identity question, but it comes with certain realities that man’s sinful nature recoils from, like a vampire from a clove of garlic. If God created us, crafting the particulars of who we are, then we have to come to the humbling realization that we aren’t in control. God gives us value and roles in His kingdom and He didn’t consult us in the process. In so many self-affirmation themed movies, including Zootopia, there is a complete reversal of the appropriate posture toward God and fellow humans. Though we should live lives focused upwards toward God, and outward toward others, pop culture spins a different tale. Instead we find an inward focus that asks, “What do I have to offer? How can I show the doubters and haters what I can do and how special I truly am?” Sure, there is a place for kindness towards others, but only because it aids my own self-expression, and ensures kindness in return. Absent is the self-sacrificial love which God requires that places my own needs in the distance, and eschews praise, admiration, affirmation, and validation from others. Nowhere do we see room for the faithful servant serving out of the limelight, putting way more into service than he or she could ever get in return, but content to simply occupy the place that God has given them in life.

It’s not a glamorous life, but it is a satisfying one for all who humble themselves and seek God’s will. For them, fulfillment doesn’t simply belong to a few who are able gain recognition from others. They don’t need to attempt the futile task of inventing meaning and value for themselves. There is a sovereign Lord who sees fit to use feeble humans in His grand design, and He has guaranteed that for those who entrust everything to Him, there is always meaning, purpose, and a lasting identity as a child of God.

 

–Thomas Hersman

“Authenticity Is NOT a Fruit of the Spirit”

Authenticity. It sounds as Christian as the Gathers, baptismals, and choir robes. To younger Christians especially, being authentic has become the sublime expression of Christlikeness. (Sometimes, more so than actually behaving like Christ) The call rings through the halls of our churches in sermons, bible studies, youth groups, small groups, and countless devotionals. Christians need to be more authentic! Canigetanamen!? It preaches well, but is authenticity really all that we claim it to be?

Perhaps we respond to that message so heartily for the simple fact that no one likes a hypocrite. We all know from painful experience that one hypocrite unleashed in the body of believers can cause immeasurable, lasting damage. Our distain for hypocrisy is justified by the ferocity and frequency of Christ’s attacks upon the hypocrites of his day. In Matthew 23 alone, Jesus referred to the Pharisees as “children of hell,” “blind fools,” “blind guides,” dirty dishes, “whitewashed tombs,” “serpents,” and “brood of vipers.” A hypocrite is simply an actor (from the Greek term), who plays a part that isn’t real. The Pharisees weren’t actually pious examples of God’s will for man, they just played one on TV. Hypocrisy is not simply falling short of Christ’s example of perfection, it is pretending to be a follower of Christ when you live in open rebellion to Him in your heart and private life.

While rightfully recognizing that hypocrisy is a serious offense, we’ve been led to wrongfully believe that authenticity is its antithesis. I cannot find one Scripture that explicitly or implicitly commands believers to be authentic. There is no Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness, Self-control, and Authenticity. It is conspicuously absent, and we can’t wring it out of passages that condemn hypocrisy either. To this observation, I offer one simple conclusion. Authenticity is not found in Scripture because it is not a Biblically compatible concept. Now, before you pull out the torches and pitchforks, hear me out.

Scripture’s antidote to hypocrisy is purity of heart, not authenticity. While the term “pure in heart” is found only in Matthew’s account of the Beatitudes (Matt. 5:8), and in Psalm 73:1, the concept is central to the entirety of Scripture. Time and time again, God’s people were called to have hearts that lined up to their outward expression of faith. (Is. 29:13, Psalm 51:16-17) We may be tempted to see authenticity in those passages, but there is an important distinction to be made. While authenticity and purity of heart share the goal of making a person’s heart condition match his outward life, they differ in the fact that authenticity has a person turning inward to find and live out his true self, while purity of heart has us reach outward for the power of the Holy Spirit to transform our life from the inside out. One is an internal alignment to a subjective standard, the other is an internal alignment to God’s objective standard.

The idea of authenticity finds its roots in the popular secular feeling that fulfillment comes from embracing one’s true self. That belief is diametrically opposed to the Christian understanding that our true selves are fallen, sinful, and helplessly in need of redemption. (Jer. 17:9) Authenticity says my goal is to be who I really am, while purity of heart says my goal is to be completely transformed from the inside out. Actually, being authentic is by itself a pretty low standard. One of the most authentic people in the world is the guy at the bar who’s had one too many beers and is ready to give you the unvarnished entirety of his life story. He’s being authentic. Actually, when you think about it, Jeffrey Dahmer was being authentic when he embraced his inner cannibal.

The impact of confusing these two ideas is that in the life of believers, the goal of authenticity can displace the goal of being holy. We are called to spend our entire lives on a journey of sanctification (2 Cor. 3:18); an upward call (Phil. 3:14), as Paul puts it. Christians who’ve made authenticity the goal find it much too easy simply maintaining the status quo of comfortable old behaviors. Since they aren’t hiding their sin, they reason, they’re being authentic Christians. And, that may be true, but they aren’t being pure in heart. Conflating holiness with authenticity has led to justifying sin as my “true self” rather than choosing the hard path of resisting temptation in the pursuit of purity through the power of the Holy Spirit.

One slightly less detrimental, but no less real effect of the elevation of authenticity is that Christians have become confused about why and how we share the details of our Christian walk with others. We were intended to walk the Christian life with fellow believers and to share with them, and at times even confess to them (James 5:13). The goal of that process is to lift each other up in encouragement and hold each other accountable to the call of a holy life. It requires us to be honest and pure of heart, but not authentic. If authenticity is our goal, the focus of our sharing with others is our own self-expression. We don’t want to be challenged, or corrected if needed. We want other people to affirm our authenticity. That attitude in turn, often leads to the mistaken belief that if we aren’t always brutally honest, or don’t constantly share our deepest, darkest struggles with the entirety of our friends, relatives, fellow church members, the checkout lady at the supermarket, and that homeless guy down on the street corner, we might be a hypocrite. Combined with social media, it turns into a perfect storm of constant drama and co-dependence upon the assurance of like-minded people that one has, indeed, achieved ultimate authenticity.

Pure in heart doesn’t mean sharing everything, it does mean that everything I do and say accurately reflects the motives and values of a heart transformed by the Holy Spirit. It means that when I self-evaluate with the light of Scripture, my instinct is to forsake sin, rather than merely own it. It means that I neither feign perfection, nor embrace sin that’s comfortably “me.” It means that the focus of my life and communication is not my own emotional rollercoaster, but Almighty God’s faithfulness. It means lifting up God’s truth as the standard for my life and for others’, while understanding that a lifetime of pursuing Him will find me nowhere approaching God’s surpassing righteousness. To be pure in heart means that I have no hidden motives, no secret agenda, no self-serving plan, no desire to manipulate, and that everything I say and do reflects the simple goal of glorifying Christ, and drawing others to Him.

Ditch the authenticity. Be pure in heart.

–Thomas Hersman

“Biblical Morality: The Safest Choice”

My child, listen when your father corrects you.

Don’t neglect your mother’s instruction.

What you learn from them will crown you with grace

And be a chain of honor around your neck.

My child, if sinners entice you,

    Turn your back on them!

 Proverbs 1:8-10 (NLT)

 

The older I get, the more I appreciate this verse’s candor. It’s hard sometimes to see myself as older and wiser to my children’s youth and inexperience, and it doesn’t help that we are in the middle of a major cultural dive into godlessness. Somehow we parents must help these young souls see that “this vile world,” while promising fun, excitement, and fulfillment, offers only one way tickets on a bullet train to eternal destruction.

With that realization weighing heavily in the back of my mind, today I read the heartrending letter a young woman wrote to her rapist in court. (The Stanford rape case, for those that are following in the news) It detailed her prolonged agony, pain, and humiliation as she went through the grueling process of pursuing justice. (Caution: This letter gives explicit details and some might not be comfortable reading it) As a parent, my one overwhelming response is how do I keep this from happening to my children?

There can be no doubt that the only person morally culpable for rape is the rapist. Neither the alcohol consumed, nor even the “culture of promiscuity” are free moral agents. Yet, us outside observers whose job is not to decide justice, but to learn from observation, should take a step back for a moment. We need to recognize that the circumstances surrounding this horrific crime owe their existence to an overabundance of foolish decisions that popular culture assumes to be perfectly normal. However, like the kid that always goads others into doing something dangerous, but pretends to adults that he is the one voice of restraint and reason on the playground, the supposedly wise voices of popular culture sit by as young people’s lives are shattered, and pretend that those young people weren’t doing exactly what our culture expected of them.

As believers, we are well acquainted with the common refrain that teaching young people Biblical morality is a hopelessly unrealistic goal.  Kids will be kids, and the best we can hope for is that they stay safe while they play next to the cliff. That mentality echoes in the painful details of this young woman’s story. We need to do better, and we can. It is God’s rules for life that offer the protection that our sons and daughters need, not pop culture’s muddled, self-defeating memes about responsible drinking, safe sex, and consent.

Without question, recreational consumption of alcohol is the one constant catalyst to all that factors leading to this young woman’s rape. Alcohol set her up to be a victim, and protected her rapist behind a shroud of uncertainty. Through intoxication, she forfeited the best weapon she had against assault, her own brain. By serving alcohol to him, someone unwittingly removed the inhibitions of a deeply depraved man. Not only did her rapist use the power of alcohol to subdue her, he used it to create a narrative that she could not dispute because her memory was erased. In her words, I read the influence of popular culture as she admitting that she drank too much, but concluded “Everyone in this room has had a night where they have regretted drinking too much…” She faulted herself for miscalculating her own tolerance for alcohol, an estimation that is something like eyeballing how far out I can go on a limb before it cracks. Though she is not to blame for her victimization, there is little doubt that she and a multitude of other young women would not be victims if they heeded Scripture’s warning that when alcohol occupies a central place in life, there are bitter, painful results. (Prov. 23:29-32)

Like adding matches to gasoline, popular culture mixes in permissive sexuality with alcohol, the “social lubricant.” Young people head out the door with a “have fun and be safe,” and the deceptively simple sounding idea of consent. “Forget the outdated morality of the past, anything goes as long as you have consent.” Upon that muddled idea, many an evil man preys, and some innocent young men are snared. Consent is not nearly as concrete as culture assumes it to be, when you start asking difficult questions. There is no objective test for consent, and it gets really muddy when you try to determine what specifically has been consented to, for how long, and under what circumstances. How much alcohol does it take to make a person unable to provide consent, and what happens when both parties have passed that point? What happens when no one recalls with certainty who did what, and what consent was granted? Investigators risk either punishing an innocent person, or letting a guilty one go free. Would it not be better to recognize that these ambiguities are never present in the marriage bed of a husband and wife committed in a loving relationship for life?

Mr. Turner should be held accountable, (more than he was, in my opinion) and he should not be allowed to blame anyone for his crime. However, it is time for us also to recognize that our culture nurtured his depravity. We see that fact illustrated by his parents in the letter they wrote to the judge pleading for leniency because his life has been ruined. Yes, he raped a girl, but he’s a victim too in their eyes. While many are screaming (rightfully so) at him to step up and take responsibility, some of these same voices have just as strongly promoted the idea that everyone gets drunk and stupid sometimes. They have told young people that character and morality are so 20th century. They are fine allowing men to remain adolescents indefinitely, and encourage them to make college all about parties, sex, and booze. They certainly weren’t chiming in to tell this young man that he has a God given responsibility to protect and honor all women, and to love only one as long as they both shall live. That would be too politically incorrect.

Bad things happen, even to good people. Living life according to God’s rules doesn’t keep us from all harm and tragedy, but the greatest protection that our young people have is the wisdom and guidance of God’s Word. Only with grave foolishness would we neglect as parents to teach those truths simply because they are unpopular in today’s world.

–Thomas Hersman

Are We Reaching TV Smut Critical Mass?

 

It is with a feeling of great irony that I write this post. I want you to know that I am not one of those guys. I grew up in the mid-nineties evangelical world where Satan was hiding in back masked records, and inserting subliminal messages into Saturday morning cartoons. I knew the Christians that won’t watch any show produced since Andy Griffith originally aired, because anything newer is too edgy. I’ve never obsessed over Harry Potter, or the magic of Beauty and the Beast. I figure if my kid’s grasps on reality are so fragile that they think a magic kiss can transform a Wookie into Fabio, then we’ve got other, more pressing problems to deal with. However, as I consider the future of media in America, I am beginning to wonder if we are approaching a point where our families will have to reject even the mildest G-rated TV and movies for their attempts to introduce children to immoral lifestyles.

We all have witnessed Hollywood’s descent into a cesspool of debauchery over the last few decades. However, there has remained still an understanding that children at least, should be protected from the worst of the garbage. Cable shows like Game of Thrones that use uninhibited depravity as a shtick to maintain a viewer base are still banned from going out over the air, and rated to exclude children.  Amazingly, the TV and movie rating system still pays lip service to the idea that it’s not healthy for children to be exposed to immoral, or at least controversial, sexual behaviors. Yes, there has been a slow creep of morally objectionable material into children’s media, but considering that it is entirely run by a faceless group of liberal Hollywood types, I am a bit surprised that I can still mostly predict the content of a G rated movie, versus a PG or PG-13. However, I believe this is on the verge of changing.

It is no secret that Hollywood has mounted a successful PR campaign for homosexuality for decades, and now they’ve set their sights on children’s media. Most major TV shows have at least one token gay character depicted favorably, or they make a clear expression of support for LGBT behaviors. Over all, it’s been a resounding success. Gallop poling shows that while less than 4% of the population identifies as gay, the average American places that number at about 20 to 30%. While they seek to sway perception with intentionally positive depictions of LGBT characters, content creators also use the sheer numbers of these characters to effectively exploit culture’s tendency to associate common with normal, and normal with right. Since 2002, there has been a 25% increase in the number of Americans that view homosexuality as morally acceptable. However, all of this success has come about within the constraints of a rating system that keeps most objectionable material out of children’s media. In just the last few weeks we have seen a couple of indications that LGBT activists are seeking to dissolve this final limitation. The attention and popularity of the #GiveElsaAGirlfriend hashtag illustrates the discontent of LGBT culture warriors with the fact that most children’s media still assumes heterosexuality in families and parents. Then there is the obsessed giddiness of the entirety of social media over several frames in the trailer for the new Disney film Finding Dory that might possibly, maybe, perhaps, if-we’re-lucky depict a lesbian couple. This, because exposing preschoolers to deviant sexual practices during a silly G-rated movie about a talking blue fish equates to a job well done in the LGBT activist world.

If you will allow me to make a completely unscientific gut prediction, I see children’s popular media being taken over by LGBT ideology in the next ten years. Companies such as Disney don’t have the moral fortitude to hold the line against a few loud voices in society screaming that it’s not fair that every Disney princess has a prince because that implies that a princess looking for another princess might not be okay. Innocent children’s cartoons that were nominally educational (so that parents won’t feel guilty putting kids in front of the TV), will now take it upon themselves to teach children who can barely walk that Jill’s two mommies are just the same as Henry’s mommy and daddy, and that Sam may not feel like a little boy and if he wants, he can be Sally instead. (If you think this is far-fetched, consider this curriculum being introduced to school children in Washington State) I wonder if we are approaching a day where we can be just as confident that every new children’s show will voice this agenda, as we are that next week’s episode of Game of Thrones will have gratuitous sex, nudity, violence, and foul language. TV and movie producers can do this all with a G rating, under the pretense of inclusivity and diversity. We may think it harmful to present ideas to children that they are ill-equipped to handle, but LGBT culture warriors champion confusing their own prepubescent children with ideas that no child comes up with on his own unless some adult with an agenda thrusts it upon them.

Today’s responsible parents already know that it is necessary for the proper mental and spiritual health of our children that we carefully guard, filter, and limit the material that secular culture is throwing at us. Though violence, bad language, bad attitudes, and false ideologies are all harmful to children, what makes LGBT behaviors so destructive is that they come with the underlying notion of identity. While children are in the midst of the extended crisis and emotional rollercoaster of childhood and adolescence, someone is suggesting to them that all of this completely normal pain and turmoil exists because they haven’t adopted their “true” identity. The positively Satanic genius of the LGBT agenda is that it not only tempts a person to sin, but it persuades them that their sin is a core pillar of their identity, and anyone who suggests otherwise hates them.

That is why I issue this challenge. My fellow Christian parents, are we prepared for this brave new world? I have always been an advocate of controlled exposure to media, meaning that if a TV show or movie is otherwise clean, I can use it to challenge a child that is mature enough to think critically about the ideas expressed. However, as there becomes even less and less material suitable for adults, and as we face a new era of exposure to children, what are we willing to do? Do we adjust our expectations to follow secular culture, or is there coming a day when we simply unplug, disconnect, and be content with our taped re-runs of Andy Griffith?

–Thomas Hersman

Christians Don’t Get to Vote on Immorality

On Wednesday of this week, the United Methodist General conference agreed to meet and “review” it’s stance on homosexual relationships. While I haven’t had great confidence in the United Methodist church’s theological fidelity for some time, the significance of this moment hits me with some gravity. Surely, John Wesley would turn over in his grave if he could somehow become aware of the willingness of his movement to surrender its moral compass to the pressures of popular culture.

Let’s be clear that this is an issue of major moral practice, that church leaders, (many who would call themselves pastors) are reworking as flippantly as if someone complained about the design of the church bulletin, and they figure a little tweaking would make it more appealing to the masses.

We must also dispense with the notion that this is just one of the many evolutions of thought in the history of Christendom. LGBT activists always maintain the “What about slavery?” argument as the universal defense of the notion that Christian moral standards can be voted upon and altered by democratic means. However, if the church has rightfully altered its thinking on any social, moral, or theological issue in the past, the justification for that change was not a consensus among church leaders, but the realization that we had departed from what the text of Scripture tells us.

We should be honest with ourselves and acknowledge that the movement to accept homosexual practices in the church is driven by a lot of things, but rigorous study of Scripture is not one of them. Anyone looking at the entirety of what Scripture has to say on the matter without biases or preconceived notions must conclude that God’s standard for sexual purity is one man, one woman, committed for life in a marriage covenant. For thousands of years, not one orthodox Christian denomination has read that clearly communicated standard differently; even when they disagreed over many of Scripture’s other teachings. Should we not be skeptical when it is at the precise moment that popular culture began to make these demands upon the church, that some began to imagine a different interpretation?

There is little doubt in my mind that the pro LGBT movement is winning the debate at a popular level in the greater church culture, not out of substance, but because they know how to frame the discussion in a way that appeals to emotions, and preys upon Biblical illiteracy. They’ve created monsters out of the opposing side, using the loaded language of popular culture wars, pitting privilege against repressed victims who just want to be free to love God authentically without hiding who they really are. They tell a love story, and we reply with a hermeneutical analysis of Scripture passages. Of course the love story wins, because everyone likes a good love story, but that doesn’t make it right.

Unlike some of the culture wars of the past that have been more about trying to get secular culture to recognize Biblical morality, this is a battle for the very identity of the church, and that makes it an issue worth planting a flag into and defending. We take that stand knowing full well that it means raising the fire-breathing ire of the entirety of secular culture and liberal religion. Homosexual behavior, like all sexual immorality, is unambiguously condemned by Scripture, and it is only with a whole lot of hermeneutical gymnastics that any other conclusion can be produced. Unlike some of the other things that can divide Christians, Scripture teaches that sexual immorality is one issue that cannot be tolerated in the body of believers (certainly that applies to other sins as well that we haven’t always been as quick to address, but that’s a topic for another time). Perhaps even more significantly, consider what it means for the church if we can take an inconvenient, but unambiguous teaching of Scripture (the very foundation of our identity), gather up a number of like-minded people, and veto God’s command. Can we really profess to be Christians any longer? Whatever is left after that, it’s certainly not Christian by very definition of the term.

Love and understanding, we are told, are the operative principles in this discussion. But only a superficial caricature of genuine love would desire a person’s emotional happiness over their long term well-being and eternal destiny. Scripture tells us that the most loving thing we can do as a body of believers when a person persists in defiance of Scriptural morality is to isolate them from the body in hopes that they will ultimately repent and find restoration. (1 Cor. 5) Though it seems harsh, that is the standard of accountability that every believer must accept, and it is the church’s responsibility to carry it out. I do have compassion for any person so possessed by a sin that they own it as an identity, and I would do anything in my power to see that person restored, but the one thing that I cannot do is to welcome them as a brother while they openly, purposefully, and unapologetically defy the very Scripture upon which our faith is founded.

The plight of an LGBT person who is pulled between the cross and sin is not something to be taken lightly, but to some degree, everyone who has made the choice to follow Christ has been there. Everyone has had a sin that they wanted to keep so strongly that they tried desperately to rationalize how it really wasn’t all that bad. And we must be clear, every emotional appeal, every attempt to normalize LGBT behavior, every misapplication of Scriptural love, and rationally bulimic attempt to squeeze LGBT lifestyles in between the lines of Scripture, is just man’s sinful heart trying to persuade itself that it doesn’t have to leave everything behind to follow Christ. However, we would be a sorry lot indeed if the church accommodated our sin instead of reaching out a hand to help us out and upward into a life that places the glory of God above all else.

–Thomas Hersman

“Respect the Classics”

I am the father of a precocious seven-year-old who can listen to a five-minute conversation between adults and recite back all the points and counter points. To the casual observer, she might seem extraordinarily wise beyond her years, but the ideas aren’t her own. She hasn’t reasoned through the different points and reached a conclusion. In many cases, she barely grasps what she’s talking about, but you have to admit, she sounds good.

Knowing the culture that she is growing up in, I will have to do my best to help her understand that she has to earn the right to be heard. It won’t be easy. We live in the era of social media where we can broadcast a constant torrent of our thoughts and feelings with merely a keystroke, and consequently, we assume that having the same power that came at great personal cost to previous generations somehow automatically implies that what we have to say is just as valuable.

I have found one amusing illustration of that attitude in the online reviews of classic works. I must shake my head in disbelief upon reading a random person’s comment that Augustine in his Confessions “just doesn’t keep the reader interested,” or Thomas Aquinas is “too complicated,” in Summa Theologica. Please don’t misunderstand me, I am not suggesting that we should read these works without criticism, but it would seem to me that if one finds a piece of literature that has influenced Christian thought for over 1600 years to be poorly constructed, the problem might be you, and not the book.

I must include myself when I point out that 30-somethings (Millennials) in the church today have a tendency to brush over centuries of thought and practice, and insist that changes be made to fit our particular wants and wishes. While the generations that came before us were simply happy to have a copy of the Scriptures in their own language and the freedom to meet in the open with fellow believers, we have the audacity to demand that services be shorter to fit our attention spans, music conform to our tastes for entertainment, and our favorite topics be emphasized while the ones that make us uncomfortable are avoided. While millennials are departing the church in droves, we say that it’s because the modern church isn’t engaging. In reality, it’s because we choose to prefer the company of the secular world over the company of fellow believers if they don’t recognize how special we are. This, in spite of the fact that meeting with fellow believers is commanded by Scripture, and no exceptions are provided for long sermons or boring music. (Heb. 10:23-25)

Someday, millennials will be the patriarchs and matriarchs of the church, but one thing that should happen before that day is for us to get a true sense of where we fit in the flow of church history, thought, and practice. Our generation does have a lot to give, but we have to earn our spot, just as previous generations have. We can start by listening when Ecclesiastes tells us that there is nothing new, and it has all been done before. Ecclesiastes is a lot like the old man on the porch sipping ice tea and staring off into the distance. He has the unique perspective of looking back over his entire life as a unified whole. That is a perspective that a young person cannot have. Older generations have seen movements come and go, with the longer cycles of history, and that is something that millennials would do well to consider. Instead we seem to get hung up on our own feelings of uniqueness. We often wear our characteristic narcissism almost like a badge of courage, when we ought to know that it’s just pride – dirty, ugly old pride. The church struggles with millennials’ unwillingness to be lectured on the biblical standards of morality, with calls to slow pitch hot button issues, but do we think we are the first generation to find righteous living upsetting to our delicate, snowflake-like constitutions?

To become a master at any worthwhile art or skill set, a person must study what the existing masters have to teach. A wise young person does well to listen to the wisdom that comes from previous generations of Christians, to discover why they set things up as they have, to consider what movements and ideas they have responded to, and what the outcome has been. When a believer who has demonstrated a vibrant walk with Christ for longer than you’ve been alive starts to talk, you need to listen. They have earned the right to be heard. In case you doubt me, consider this theme through Scripture, of the young learning from the old, and respecting older generations (Titus 2, 1 Pet. 5:5-7, Prov. 16:31, Prov. 20:29, 1 Tim. 5:1-3, Lev. 9:32). The old is not necessarily better, nor is the new bad, but for the believer, there is no substitute for the wisdom that comes with time and experience. With humility, we must approach the life and work of previous generations living and departed, to learn all that we can before we presume to think we can improve upon them.

–Thomas Hersman

Should Christians Read this Post?

Here’s a fun little experiment. Do a Google search for “Should Christians…,” and watch what happens. In the first page of results, I found the questions, “Should Christians: do yoga, vote, drink, eat pork, take antidepressants, celebrate Halloween, cremate loved ones, support socialism, get tattoos, play the lottery, or wear bikinis.” That only scratches the surface of what the internet has to say about the subject. It’s a good thing that people are asking tough questions about the implications of their Christian beliefs, but I do wonder about this approach.

If I am asking the question, “Should Christians…,” presumably the topic falls into one of two categories. Either it is specifically addressed in Scripture, or it is a topic that is not specifically addressed in Scripture. No rocket science there, right? However, if the first is true, why do I need to phrase the question “Should Christians…” when I can simply ask “What does Scripture say?” For example, there need not be any deep pondering over whether I ought to murder my neighbor for letting his dog in my yard. I don’t need to Google “Should Christians murder neighbors over petty squabbles?” In fact, unless I am simply ignorant of Scripture (and no believer ought to be), the only reason I have to approach a clear Biblical teaching as though it were unclear, is that I am trying to rationalize a view that I know is unbiblical. If that’s the case, I don’t need the topic better explained, but I do need to become more submissive to Christ.

Honest consideration of many of the issues that modern Christendom debates shows that there is often little ambiguity in the true meaning and application of Scripture, but there is a clash of secular culture’s values with those of Scripture. Many a hermeneutical infraction has grown from nothing else but dissatisfaction with what God clearly says. In those cases, look for faulty reasoning (since Jesus never mention homosexuality by name, it can’t be all that bad) and emotional arguments, (Doesn’t God want me to be happy?) and you will see the true nature of the problem at hand.

If however, Scripture doesn’t provide us a hard ruling on a behavior, we don’t have the right to proclaim “Christians should…” regarding our own judgment of where the line should be. That is the very definition of legalism. At the very most, I can appeal to Scriptural reasoning and consider the cause and effect of the choice at hand. God knew what He was doing when He gave us His Word. We don’t need to help Him out by filling in “the blanks.” There are many cases where circumstances, a Christian’s individual walk with God, and possible impact upon ministry, are the deciding factor for making the wisest choice. In those situations, the primary question is not, “Should Christians…?” but, “Should I…?” In practice, that ought to be a much higher standard than broad statements about what is generally the right choice for all believers. We are all (if we can be honest with ourselves) well acquainted with our strengths and weaknesses. For instance, I don’t drink alcohol. I’ve never had a drink. I choose not to drink because I believe it is the wisest choice for me. If I’m being honest with myself, I must admit that I have a tendency to over-indulge in food and leisure. There is a very good chance that I would do the same with alcohol, so I choose to abstain. I also don’t want to introduce it into my home, on account of its tendency to cause people to think and act foolishly, and in ways that are incompatible with the Christian life, ministry, and witness. I don’t want my children to see me drinking, and thinking it to be simply a natural part of adult life, choose to partake without understanding the real consequences. I believe that is a bit of sound Biblical reasoning. (Consider, Prov. 31:4-5, Prov. 20:1, 1 Tim. 3:8, Col. 4:5, 1 Cor. 6:12) I don’t need to invent Scriptural warrant for it by claiming the Jesus turned the water into Welches grape juice, or by massaging some other passage beyond its intended context. I know that drinking would not be the best choice for my relationship with Christ, or the ministry to which He has called me.

The temptation when considering behaviors that are not specifically or decisively addressed in Scripture is to think that we are free to do whatever we want, but that should not be our conclusion. A mature Christian’s standard for his own life is not what he can get by with, but what best honors Christ, and benefits his Christian life and ministry. (Consider Romans 14) If that is our attitude, then Biblical reasoning should be very compelling. If we start from that foundation for ourselves, and challenge others to think carefully under the guidance of the Holy Spirit about the lines that they draw for themselves, we need not obsess over aligning others to our specific way of thinking. An immature Christian, on the other hand, who simply wants to live comfortably close to secular culture needs to have a heart adjustment before biblically-based reasoning about best practice will take root.

Christians cannot simply appeal to controversy on debatable issues and conclude that since there is some disagreement in the church, it doesn’t matter what we do. In every significant decision that we make, we have a Biblical mandate to make the best possible choice. We need to be challenged and to challenge others to approach these questions from that perspective, without resorting to legalism or abstract emotional manipulation such as “Well, if you have to ask, you shouldn’t be doing it,” or “Would Jesus have eaten that last cannoli?,” or “Would you be doing that if Jesus were standing right there?” (Side not: There are a lot of things that I would not feel comfortable doing if the God of the Universe were standing in the flesh right next to me. I certainly wouldn’t be sitting here writing this to you. I’d be bowing and groveling at His feet)

We can answer the “Should Christians…” question simply. I should obey God’s Word when His standard is decisively given, and apply Biblical reasoning in other areas to make the choice that allows me specifically to best glorify God in my life. For the debatable issues, we hold a strict standard for ourselves, and extend grace to others, while encouraging them to live carefully in full view of a world that desperately needs a Savior.

by Thomas Hersman

I Am Not a “Person of Faith”

by Thomas Hersman

Call me a Bible-thumper. Call me a Holly Roller. Call me a Jesus Freak if it makes you feel better. Just don’t call me a “person of faith.” Every time I hear that label, I cringe. I know it’s not meant to be derogatory. It’s a convenient way for pop culture to lump together all religious traditions while remaining all-inclusive, non-sectarian, and ostensibly non-critical. Yet, I can’t be too hard on outsiders when some of us Christians use the term ourselves, selecting it from the cache of euphemisms that make us feel more spiritually hip. It’s popularity aside, there are some very good reasons to reconsider whether we are indeed “people of faith.”

Applying “person of faith” to a Christian suggests that faith is the defining characteristic of Christianity. That isn’t the case at all, or at least it shouldn’t be. Surely we can all see that the scope of a Christian’s faith is actually very limited. Exclusivity is built in, and faith is not our default setting. The fact that we have faith in Christ should not mean that we are more likely to have faith in any other person, thing, or idea. Judging from the slew of religiously charged hoaxes circulating on social media, perhaps we didn’t get the memo.

Every passage of Scripture that praises and encourages faith clearly indicates that the faith must be in the God of Scripture. Without that context, a passage such as Luke 17:19 (Where Jesus tells a man that his faith has healed him) appears to say something altogether different than what the author intended. It wasn’t faith as a standalone virtue that healed him. It was Jesus. Jesus healed him because of his faith in the God of Scripture. Playing to our culture’s weakness towards over-inclusiveness and unity, we’ve made simply having faith more important than the person in whom that faith is placed. At some point we concluded that if all religions have faith, but they disagree on who the faith should be in, at least we can all agree that any faith is preferable to lack of faith. But, that idea is not only unbiblical and irrational, it is incredibly foolhardy. If I am in a sinking ship, and my nondescript faith in abstract karma convinces me that everything will turn out okay, so I don’t get into a lifeboat, my faith may very well get me killed for no good reason. Faith without a reliable object is nothing but wishful thinking.

When faith is separated from a reliable object, it becomes a quasi-magical, mystical power that we attempt to conjure up in our own psyche. This pop-culture view of faith is often at odds with objective truth, and results in the Miracle on 34th Street model. We all join the child Susan as she says over and over, “I believe, I believe, even though it doesn’t make sense, I believe.” It’s all about cultivating the right feelings and suppressing any opposing ones, so that Santa Clause gives you miracles, healing, money, or whatever you want – the sky is the limit.

We must understand that Biblical faith is based in truth, and not merely feeling or attitude. To clarify and demystify faith, I prefer to say that faith is a personal trust based upon what we know, that extends beyond what we can personally verify. It is a familiar part of human experience. My wife tells me that she loves me. I can’t test for love. While it is possible that she has some secret agenda that she has hidden for the past 11 years, everything I know about her indicates that she is telling the truth. It is perfectly reasonable to trust that her love is genuine. However, if she cut my brake lines on Monday, put arsenic in my coffee on Tuesday, and I woke up to her trying to put a pillow over my head on Wednesday night, nothing I feel toward her would make it reasonable to believe that she loves me. Similarly, our faith in Christ has a basis in things that are tangible, real, and testable, such as the Resurrection (1 Cor. 15) and other historical evidence, evidence from the natural world (Psalm 8), and rational consideration. Upon a foundation of what we know to be true, our faith takes us to “assurance of things that we hope for and evidence of the unseen.” (Hebrews 11:1) Since we know who God is, and that He has both the power and reliability to perform what He has promised, we have faith in things that cannot be examined, such as life after death.

Another consideration is this: If only the religious are people of faith, then it makes sense that some people (such as atheists or agnostics) successfully reject all faith in favor of what they know through their senses, but everyone has faith in something. Faith is a necessary part of human existence because we all have limited knowledge and limited senses. Only faith allows a person to observe small, limited changes in life forms and conclude that this method generated all life from single cells to humanity. Faith compels a person to believe that reality is limited to experience through the senses, when reason says this is not necessarily the case. Finally, if I believe that my intellect evolved to help me survive, yet I trust it to reveal truth, it must be faith that brings me to that conclusion. None of these beliefs can be established by simple experience and reason, they require faith to take the final step. Everyone has faith. What sets Christians apart is not their faith, but the One in whom their faith is placed.

Christians are not “people of faith.” We are people of faith in Jesus Christ. Let’s not cheapen the Gospel by burying it in a sea of dead religion, and empty faith, as if Christianity were simply just a face in the crowd of religions. Not when souls are at stake. I say that we take every possible opportunity to correct this misnomer and challenge others to see that we are not people of faith. We possess faith – in the one true God.

Christians, we are Victors, Not Victims

As I write this, #DayOfSilence is trending on social media. Created by the LGBT advancement organization GLSEN, it’s a day for young people to take a vow of silence at school in protest of “anti-LGBT name-calling, bullying and harassment.” Ironically, Christian young people across the nation face name-calling, bullying, and harassment, every day, without press and media coverage bringing attention to their plight. Sometimes it seems that with every call for tolerance secular culture sends out, the individual Christian living out his faith is finding less tolerance, and dimmer prospects for freedom in the future. However, if you expect me to spend the rest of this post bellyaching, then I must disappoint you. It’s a tough pill to swallow, but Scripture warns that anyone living God’s way should expect resistance. (2 Tim. 3:12) In fact almost every other generation and nationality of believers could tell us to join the club. Nothing we face approaches the daily reality for Christians in North Korea and the Muslim world. Regardless, it seems that the tendency is for American Christians (who previously enjoyed such an extended reprieve from serious persecution) to either lash out, or to adopt a victim mentality.

Matthew 5:11 tells us that we are blessed to take our place as persecuted believers. Not because we get any enjoyment out of suffering, but because God uses the difficult circumstances of persecution for His own Glory. All of that goes out the window, however, if in frustration we lower ourselves to the same tactics that the secular world uses against us. That is the other part of Matthew 5:11. The blessing comes only if we suffer for Christ’s sake and the evil spoken against us is false. As odd as it may sound, on one issue I am on the same page as the activists that seek to end bullying. I have heard far too many Christians use language that could only be intended to offend and tear down. It is not our job as believers to voice our own personal disgust or disapproval to unbelievers. Sinners sin. That’s what they do. It shouldn’t surprise us. It shouldn’t surprise us that sinners retreat from God’s laws. We did too. Our sins were and are every bit as real as theirs, and but for the grace of God we would be in the same condition. Colossians 4:5-6 tells us to be wise in our encounters with unbelievers, and to make the best use of our opportunities, with speech that is “seasoned with salt.” That is language that is “savory,” or well thought out, and carefully chosen. It doesn’t mean sugar coating the truth, or denying the consequences of sin. It does mean that everything we say and do serves the purposes of God’s kingdom, and that we aren’t creating occasion to be misunderstood through clumsy, aggressive, or spiteful language. Sometimes it means overlooking a personal slight or forfeiting an opportunity to assert our individual rights, when doing so would not be in the best interests of God’s kingdom. Furthermore, we can and should engage in the political process as individuals and support leaders that will protect and defend us, but only while remembering that our citizenship here is merely temporary, and while keeping the big picture of God’s glory in mind.

The current trends seem to indicate that persecution is probably going to increase in America. Perhaps it won’t be as intense as persecution found in other parts of the world, but in my opinion, we are going to increasingly discover that living according to the principles of God’s Word puts us at odds with political power. That knowledge can inspire a fatalistic attitude, or perhaps because we live in a culture where nothing is quite as personally validating as the ability to claim the victim label, it means asserting the coveted title of disenfranchised minority. The truth is that genuine Christians have been victimized through all of history. From the beginning we’ve been tortured, hung, burned, beheaded, fed to wild animals, and dismembered for sport. Even now, our brothers and sisters are enduring similar things, while much of the world turns a blind eye. But we are not victims. We are more than conquerors. Not in the sense that eventually we will turn things around for a big political win. That’s not how we measure success. We will continue to bear the name of Christ in the tradition of those who have gone before, the faithful martyrs who burned in Nero’s gardens, who defied kings to translate the Bible to the common language, who were slaughtered for hiding Jews from the Nazis, who died spreading the Gospel behind the Iron Curtain, and who today face unspeakable atrocities under totalitarian regimes. The success of the church is not counted in its ability to win elections, reverse bad laws, or defeat cultural enemies. Success is maintaining the integrity of our conduct and beliefs regardless of tremendously difficult circumstances. Success is looking into the eyes of those who hate you so much because of the Name you bear, that they will imprison, impoverish, and even execute you, and saying “I love you, God loves you, and if this is what it takes for you to see the power of His love, then I hope to count you my brother or sister in this life or the next.” No, we are not victims. We will bear that witness in defiance of evil and for the Glory of our Risen Lord to the fires of our own martyrdom if necessary and to the very end of the age. We can, because we walk in the company of the One who has promised to be with us the entire way.

See? It’s a tough pill, and a tall order. Even as I write, I see how easy it is to say and how hard it is to live, and I am humbled by my own imperfection and inadequacy. Join with me, please. Let us pray for, and pursue, the purity of heart and action and the singular focus upon Christ that will make this idea a reality in our lives.

The Myth of the “Head Christian”

by: Thomas Hersman

I’ve been called a “head Christian.” I don’t know if you have heard this expression, but before you have a chance to get the wrong idea, let me explain. No, it’s not some sort of rare mental disorder. In certain corners of Evangelical Christendom, it describes a person who one perceives to be guilty of over-thinking his Christian beliefs, or leaning too heavily upon rational processes. As you might imagine, given the fact that I spend a great deal of time discussing the rational underpinnings of Christian belief, I’ve come across it a time or two – or two thousand.

I present for your consideration this premise: The head Christian is a Myth – like big Foot, or a tasty veggie burger. In its most innocent form, the head Christian label might describe someone who knows and perhaps claims to believe basic Christian doctrine, but stops short of making an actual commitment to Christ. It assumes a dualistic tension between the rational or intellectual part of an individual, and the emotions or heart. The common notion is that the heart must be engaged for genuine salvation to take place, but the intellect is to various degrees less important, and may actually get in the way.  Due to deeply ingrained attitudes in the church, this seems almost intuitively true, but at best it’s a mischaracterization. At worse, the head Christian charge has a darker side as a justification for elevating feeling over careful thought and consideration.

The first step in our consideration of the idea of a Head Christian is to see what Scripture says. Is the dichotomy of a head vs. heart Christian found in the Bible? When Christ commands us to us to love God with the heart (cardia), soul (psyche), and mind (dianoia), (Matt. 22:37), we are tempted to read it in terms of emotions, intellect, and spirit. In modern usage, the term “heart” is almost synonymous with emotions, and that fits our preconception of the heart/mind conflict. In Scripture, the term heart (cardia), overlaps emotions and intellect. It is the seat of our deepest passions, and the innermost part of us that drives our behavior. Soul references life and consciousness, and Mind references our entire thought life, rational and otherwise. In this passage emotions and feelings aren’t even addressed separately, perhaps because they are moving targets that are just as easily swayed by hormones or heartburn as they are by anything objectively real. The focus of this verse, and the theme in all of Scripture is that a person should love God to his very core in such a way that it motivates him to a particular way of living. Romans 10:9 tells us that to be saved, we must “believe in [our] heart.” Believe is another term that has been corrupted with emotionalism, but in Greek it is the word pisteuo, which means to be thoroughly convinced. Belief in Scripture is mostly unconnected to emotions. We have come to think that “believing in your heart” means to feel strongly about something, but in Scripture, it means to be so convinced that something is true that it invades the deepest part of you, altering your motives and actions. Salvation starts not with a feeling that we have, but with our internalization of the truth that Christ is God, and risen from the dead. Simply put, the anchor of our relationship to Christ is what we know in our minds, not what we feel with our emotions.

That raises a question. Can that process stop with the head? Can a person believe, but not commit? Human nature informs us to the contrary. The heart always follows the head. We can be confused about this because there is “I believe,” and there is “I BELIEVE.” It’s like the period of childhood where you began to see that the whole Santa Clause thing wasn’t adding up. Yeah, you played along for a year or two because it was fun, and there were presents involved, but you wouldn’t have bet your baseball card collection on it. Our culture allows us to say we believe anything without being challenged to rationally defend or live by those beliefs. However, the things that we genuinely believe drive our actions and judgement. A person that truly believes the Christ is the Lord of the Universe will be transformed to the core by that knowledge.

The problem is that many Christians, (May I be so bold as to say most?) in western society have laid emotions as the true foundation of their relationship with God, both as the assurance of their own Salvation, and as the determiner of doctrine and life choices. It is because of this attitude that the head Christian charge has found such utility. Ask someone how they know they are saved, that God is real, the Bible is true, or that Mormonism is a heretical doctrine, and you will just as likely get some version of the “I feel it” answer in place of an “I know it’s true, and here is why…” answer. Chalk it up to laziness or convenience, but one assertion of feeling trumps the best researched and constructed argument. The results of that attitude are devastating. First and foremost, the feelings Christian is incredibly vulnerable to heretical beliefs. It should come as no surprise that every heretic from Joel Osteen to Joseph Smith relies upon emotions much more than intellect to capture victims. It is sobering to think that temples to countless false doctrines are packed with “heart (emotions) Christians,” that feel like they are on the right spiritual course, but are headed to an eternity without God.

However, the cost of emotions-based Christianity is not just all out heresy, but thousands of inferior ideas, beliefs, and practices that harm the effectiveness of the church by diverting believer’s attentions and resources. Many Christians have grown up under the misconception that the Holy Spirit communicates mainly by feeling, and thus follow their own feelings in a giant self-guided circle like a dog chasing its tail. However, all that the Holy Spirit has to communicate about most things can be found in the pages of Scripture, if they would just pick it up, read it, and apply it with some sound Biblical reasoning. While the communication of the Holy Spirit is a mystery that I can never fully understand or explain, I can say with certainty that everything He communicates will harmonize rationally with the truth already provided in the pages of Scripture. Unfortunately, the emotional Christian is generally ill-equipped to see conflicts with Scripture when they arise, and will default to what they feel God is telling them. That, of course, is just another way of saying what feels right to me.

In reality, there are not “heart Christians” and “head Christians.” To be a Christian we must allow the knowledge of who God is to penetrate to our very core, to permeate are entire being, body, soul, and mind, and to fundamentally transform who we are. However, if I must, I will gladly wear the term “head Christian.” I am a “head Christian,” and a “heart Christian,” but in reality, just a Christian. On good days I feel it. Always, I know it.

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