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

“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

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