“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

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

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