A Christian Response to Attacks on the Faith

The terroristic attacks on the French Magazine Charlie Hedbo have once again thrust a simmering conflict into the headlines. The magazine is well-known for its satirical cartoons that are equal opportunity offenders. The Pope, Christianity, Islam, the prophet Mohammed are all fair game for the magazines satire. It is clear that the attack this week on the magazine’s headquarters, which left twelve dead, was motivated by satirical cartoons of the prophet Mohammed. Even as I write this the French security forces have surrounded the two suspected gunman who are reported to have told police they are ready to die as martyrs.

In the past few days there have been numerous articles, blogs, and news reports about the violent responses that radical Islamists have made to similar affronts to Islam in recent years. In the midst of the reports and debates there have been a variety of responses to the very idea of printing images that are offensive to religious sensibilities. Many editors and cartoonists have expressed solidarity with Charlie Hedbo by posting illustrations of their own, vowing to never give up the right of free expression. On the other side a number of news agencies, CNN and AP among them have made statements that they have long had a policy of not printing such offensive images.

The problem with the CNN and AP statements is that they are mistaken at best and outright falsehoods at worst. As recently as October of 2014 CNN ran a story on shocking works of art and included a picture of the infamous exhibit of a crucified Christ in a jar of urine.  Many have pointed out the hypocrisy of news agencies that feel free to attack and offend Christians at every turn, apparently without a second thought, yet go to great lengths to avoid offending other religious groups. I don’t want to delve into that subject. Rather, I want to look at how Christians need to view and respond to such attacks on the faith and on Christ.

The message of Jesus, as it relates to being offended, attacked, ridiculed, persecuted, or even killed for one’s faith, was a radical and provocative message. It boils down to these two things: one, expect those things to happen to you and when they do, consider it a blessing and respond to your antagonists with the love of Christ. Two, if you are not the subject of such attacks then reconsider whether you are truly following Jesus or not.

Jesus said it so clearly in His most famous message, The Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew chapter 5:10-12.

10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Far from being the exception that rocks our faith, Jesus says that persecution and ridicule are part and parcel of following Him and should actually increase our faith. Such opposition should serve as an assurance that we are truly following Jesus and being faithful to Him. The result of such opposition is that we are in some way blessed by God. We are in a better place in life when such things happen than when they don’t. Blessing in God’s economy is not measured by your prosperity and health but according to Jesus by the push-back you get because you love and serve Him alone as Lord and King.

Of course it is possible to be ridiculed for your faith simply because you are being a jerk to people. What I am talking about is the opposition that comes because you adhere to Christ and His teachings and do all of it under the command to love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength and love your neighbor as yourself. I am talking about holding to theological and moral positions that the culture finds offensive, but doing so with the grace and love of Christ.

Being ridiculed and persecuted for who He was and what He taught is what Jesus faced all the time. His response was one of strong gentleness, returning evil with good and loving and forgiving even those who drove the nails into His body and spit on and cursed Him as He died. In Matthew 10:25 He warns us that is this is how the world treats Him, the Master, then why would we the servants expect to be treated any differently?

Why would a follower of Christ become offended and indignant when attacked for their faith? If anything it should be taken as a badge of honor that we are counted worthy to suffer for His namesake. That is exactly what Paul says to the Philippians in chapter 1 verse 29.

29 For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake

Talk about provocative! Paul is saying that we have been granted, as a privilege, to believe in AND suffer for the sake of Christ. When he writes of his own imprisonment for the Gospel he writes of the benefits such suffering and persecution have had for the advancement of the Gospel, making the point that other followers of Christ have been emboldened to share their faith more openly as a result of Paul being persecuted. How counter-intuitive is that? Rather than run and hide out of fear or protest the injustice of his persecution, friends and colleagues of Paul shared the Gospel even more. I think it was because they saw his imprisonment, his persecution, not as a sign of something going wrong but of everything going right! Rather than be angry and lash back at the opposition, they showed the love of Christ even more boldly.

That is the Christian response to offense, ridicule, persecution, and even martyrdom. Instead of fighting back with vitriol, or anger, or even guns, the follower of Christ fights back with joy, love, grace, and forgiveness, in short, with the Gospel of Christ. For some people the answer is to destroy their enemies by way of attack. Abraham Lincoln asked the question, “If I make my enemy my friend, have I not destroyed my enemy?” That is the way of Christ. Not to make your enemy die, but to rather lay down your life for them so they are no longer your enemy. That is the way of the Cross. It is not an easy way. The easy way is to retaliate, to fight back, to punch harder and more frequently. The way of the Cross, the way of the Provocative Christian, is to respond with love by serving and sacrificing for your enemies. You do that so they may one day become followers of Christ, no longer enemies, but friends, even brothers and sisters in Him. So pray for those who persecute and ridicule you. Look for opportunities to serve them and love them in Jesus name. Refuse to attack their character or intentions. Certainly engage their ideas but as 1 Peter 3:15 urges, “do so with gentleness and respect”. And finally rejoice that you have been counted worthy to suffer for the name of Jesus.

Egypt: An Uncertain Future for the Faithful

Having just spent a week in Egypt, including time in Cairo, including a visit to Tahrir Square, I am struck by the somber mood that hangs over much of the country. If you have never been to Egypt before you might not notice anything out-of-place. This was my fifth visit to the country in the last three years and I could sense the change. People seemed more hesitant. Even among the more than 300 pastors and leaders that I spoke to for three days, there was a certain hesitancy that I felt. These are people I had been with on every prior trip, so I had some history with them to be able to read their mood. But it was not just these Christian leaders that seemed different. The whole country felt different. The energy of tourists was completely absent, down an estimated 80%. The once ubiquitous police are few and far between, replaced instead by more regular army troops. Shop keepers all spoke of how depressed the economy has become and how uncertain they feel about the future.

How did it get to this? Unless you have been living on Mars you know that on January 25th of 2011 a revolution erupted in Egypt. Thousands of Egyptians entered Tahrir Square in Cairo to protest the regime of President Hosni Mubarak. Incredibly on February 11th after three decades of being in power, Mubarak stepped aside. Throughout the next year there would be further protests, many deaths, violence, fear, as well as demonstrations of unity between Muslims and Christians, and the first truly free and democratic elections in Egypt’s history. The new parliament is made up of a majority from The Muslim Brotherhood and smaller numbers of extreme Islamists on one end, and an even smaller number of moderate to liberal freedom parties on the other end.

One of the themes I heard over and over again from Christians in Egypt is that they are so uncertain about what the future holds. There are many among the radical Muslim members of parliament, known as Salafists, who are calling for a complete Muslim state under Muslim law. Some of the them are calling for all women in the country to be veiled, for beaches and swimming pools to be segregated by gender, for all sales of alcohol to be banned throughout the country, even in resorts that cater to foreign tourists. Such moves would cripple tourism which accounts for 20% of the Egyptian economy. Some Christian leaders are so concerned about the future prospects for followers of Jesus that they are, for the first time, talking with moderates in the Muslim Brotherhood in order to reach compromises that in that past would never have been considered.

For the average Christian there is a common theme that I heard. “I just don’t know what the future holds”. I understand what they are saying. Things have changed so much that they can’t see what the road ahead looks like. Will things settle down and freedom become a reality? Will the Islamist rule the day in the short-term but in time people become disillusioned and rise up and complete the revolution for freedom? Will Christianity be persecuted beyond what we can imagine? Nobody knows the future and they are understandably anxious.

In a message that I shared with more those pastors and leaders I focused on this question of the future and the insecurity they felt. The point was, we have never known what the future holds. In the beginning of 2010 they had no idea that a revolution was coming in January of 2011. They thought they knew the future based on the stability of the recent past. They, like all of us, projected into the future that it would be much like what we knew in the recent past and present. But that is never the case. We take comfort in that idea but it is a fools comfort. Life changes in ways we can never predict. There is no security in projecting what we know of the present into the future. We cannot trust in our ability to know the future. We can only trust in the One who holds the future in the palm of His hand. Jesus repeatedly told his followers and us to not be anxious about the future or about people who can destroy our physical lives. Instead He said that we must focus on the one who can give us eternal life. Consider what Jesus says in Matthew 6:25-34

“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.

The point for any follower of Jesus, no matter where you live and in what time, is that you put your future in the hands of God. You trust not in your ability to know the future. You trust in the fact that you know the One who knows the future. Prior to January of 2011 the fate of Egypt was in God’s hands. Prior to 9/11 the fate of America was in God’s hands. Prior to anything in your life, your fate was and still is, in God’s hands. There is amazing comfort and certainty for the follower of Jesus if we have the right mind. We look not to our immediate circumstances for safety and security. Rather, as the old hymn says, “our hope is built on nothing less, than Jesus blood and righteousness”.

Blessed are the Pure in Heart

Matthew 5:8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
I have wondered why this is my least favorite of the Beatitudes that Jesus spoke. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that it has a lot to do with the fact that of the group this is the one that I a clearly do not exemplify in my own life. The simple truth is, the more I look into my heart of hearts the further from God I realize that I am. I keep getting reminded of the somewhat creepy sounding statement from the old radio show, The Shadow. “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows.” You see the issue is, the more I get to know Jesus, the more I see the evil that lurks in my heart. Not only does the Shadow know, but I know and there is no psychological trick of denial that is strong enough or effective enough to cover over that fact and hide that truth.
The closer I get to Jesus the more I realize I am a despicable, sinful, self-centered, egotistical, covetous person. At this point you are all supposed to say, “oh no Dan, you’re wonderful, awesome, and godly, don’t be so hard on yourself, we love you”. Thanks. I appreciate the gesture but that is exactly how our world tries to deal with the sinfulness of our hearts and it just doesn’t cut it. Denying that one has cancer will not get rid of the cancer. A correct diagnosis and surgery can. Denying the sin in my heart will not make my heart pure anymore than painting over the X-ray of the tumor will make it go away.
Now here is the huge irony in all of this. It rests in the statement “the closer I get to Jesus the more I realize how sinful I am”.  As the sin in our life gets dealt with and we grow to be more like Jesus, our heart is getting more pure. As a result we see who God is with greater clarity than ever. BUT, we also see the sin that remains with that same clarity. I may have been able to effectively deal with a mouth that swore like a drunken trucker before I came to Jesus. But as I get closer to Him I realize that sins of the heart like envy, or jealousy are harder to deal with. And as long as I don’t to something too overt to let that sin out, nobody else knows about. I look good on the outside, but the inside is not what it should be.
So what’s the answer? I found it in a 4th century book by St. Augustine titled, “Confessions”. In it I saw a man who learned to be honest about the sin in His heart. He exposed it to the light of truth. And just like a vampire from a Hollywood science fiction movie, it looses all power and crumbles to dust when exposed to the light. Sadly, Christians have learned to paint over and hide their heartfelt sins. We have learned not to expose them and make them known because we so quickly get rejected by other Christians who are threatened by the possibility have having to expose their own sin.
Jesus has a very different approach. It is called confession, repentance, and forgiveness. He deals with our sin and urges us to move on and get even closer to Him. But I want to warn you. When you do that you will find out even more of the things that lurk in your heart. A further part of the irony here is that the closer you get to God, the more you realize that you are farther from Him than you thought. As you see the glory and holiness of God more clearly, because your heartfelt sins are being dealt with, the more you see that you are not nearly as close to Him as you hoped. You are more sinful than you knew, and he is more holy than you ever imagined. But there is hope. Jesus makes a promise in this verse that if you continue to pursue a pure heart and are honest with Him about your sin, the day will come when you will stand before Him, face to face. You will be welcomed into His eternal kingdom. As Paul says, “now we see as if dimly in a mirror, but then we will see face to face.”

Blessed are Those Who Hunger and Thirst

What do you long for, yearn for, lay awake at night dreaming about? What do you hunger for? Much of what we yearn and hunger for never becomes reality. When I was a kid I desperately wanted to go to the moon. I could have told you everything about the space program, including every man who walked on the moon and each Command Module Pilot who circled the moon while two of his buddies played Rat Patrol in the Lunar Rover. I had a hunger to go to the moon. Sadly the program was killed long before I ever had a chance to go. Today I am pretty certain that NASA won’t be starting up a shuttle service to Tranquility Base anytime soon so that hunger will never be satisfied.
Jesus says that there is a hunger that can be satisfied but it is not something that most people really care much about. In Matthew 5:6 he said “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” At first blush it doesn’t sound nearly as exciting as a chance to hit golf balls on the moon. But the more I think about having a hunger for righteousness, the more appetizing it sounds. Think about it for a moment. What would be different in the world if life was characterized by righteousness? What if people actually did the right thing, treated each other with dignity, watched out for the hurting and weak and generally loved God and their neighbor above all else? We are coming up on an election day here in The States. How different might things be if political leaders actually cared about doing the right thing more than getting elected again and again. For that matter how different would it be if the voters hungered more for leaders who did the right thing than for those who seem to promise the most perks for us? How different would it be if people so longed for righteousness that we would no longer put up with a world in which children starve to death while others grow fat? How different would it be if we thirsted like a dying man in the desert, for a world in which women need never fear being raped?  How different would it be if we yearned for a world in which the color of ones skin was seen as a beautiful example of God’s love of variety instead of a reason to exclude, reject or attack?
Jesus hungers for such a world. It is a world in which human beings fulfill the requirements of our relationship with God and with one another. We are to hunger and thirst for “right relationships” that are characterized by loving God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and loving our neighbor as we love ourselves. We must never be satisfied with anything less.
But in order to be truly satisfied we must long for a righteousness that is worthy of heaven. For it is only there that we will ultimately experience a relationship with God and one another as it was intended. We must hunger for that heavenly righteousness as a starving man hungers for a crust of bread or thirsting man a moistening of his lips.
That kind of hunger will lead inevitably to the foot of the cross. At the cross I am reminded again and again that I have no righteousness in myself. I can do nothing to satisfy my need for righteousness. I am spiritually bankrupt. Jesus made that clear in the first Beatitude, blessed are the poor in spirit. But it is also at that cross that I receive my one true hope. I find that Jesus has gone to that cross on my behalf so that I may indeed be in a right relationship with the Father. And that is at the heart of righteousness. It is being made right with God, being in a right relationship with him because my sin has been forgiven. Jesus promises that if I hunger for that kind of righteousness that I will be filled.
As much as I may look at the world and the appalling lack of righteousness in it, I have to look deep into my own heart first. It is there that I must hunger for righteousness before anywhere else. It is in my own heart and my own relationship with God that I must thirst for right things. It is in my heart of hearts that I must yearn for a love for those around me that knows no bounds.
It is a humbling thing to admit that in our hearts we are just not right with God and others as we need to be. But it is also a very freeing thing. It frees me to become the person I know Jesus wants me to be and to look with expectation and hope to the day when all my hunger and thirst will be satisfied.

Blessed are Those Who Mourn

So in the first Beatitude Jesus tells us we are spiritually bankrupt. Okay so now what do you do with that? Simple: You mourn. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” Matthew 5:4 Jesus said that those who recognize that they are “poor in Spirit”, what I called spiritually bankrupt, will in fact possess heaven. The first step in a relationship with God is recognizing that we have nothing to bring to the table. But there is a crucial second step and it comes in the form of mourning that spiritual bankruptcy.
Blessed are those who mourn is not about the mourning that we all do when faced with the trials and hardships of life. Jesus said those who mourn will be comforted and clearly not every mourning in life has an accompanying time of comfort as promised by Jesus. But there is a mourning that will be comforted, the mourning over our spiritual condition and separation from God.
It is not a pleasant thing to have to deal with the fact of our sin. We want to hide it, deny it, laugh it off, or even proudly boast of it. But deep inside we are still in need of the love and forgiveness that God offers through Christ. The only way to truly overcome our bankruptcy is to admit it and mourn over it. With that comes the comfort of the loving arms of Jesus welcoming us into His grace.
If that is true, then why don’t we mourn our sin? Why try to deal with it in so many other ineffective and even destructive ways? At the heart of it all is pride and fear. We don’t want to admit that we are not perfect, that we have flaws and faults. So we try to deny and cover up. And with good reason. We have all seen enough examples of people who have failed and the feeding frenzy of ridicule and loathing that quickly surrounds them. Who wants to risk that kind of reaction by admitting their sin? No one! So instead we go on living our lives in silent sin, as we slowly die inside. In that way we are like the sick person who has a nagging suspicion that something is seriously wrong inside but they refuse to go to the doctor for fear of what they will learn.
The only way to truly be comforted is to deal with the sin in our hearts in an honest and forthright way. We need not be ashamed. God wants to remove our shame and guilt. The only way to do that is admit our need, mourn our sin, and ask for Him to forgive and restore us.
There is one additional thing that is crucial. If you are able to mourn your own sinfulness then you should also be willing and able to give grace and forgiveness to fellow sinners. One of the main reasons we don’t confess our sin and find the freedom that brings is that we have too often experienced the rejection that comes from others who will not admit their own sin. If we had a lot more honesty and transparency about our weakness, we would be a great deal healthier when it came to our relationship with God.
Mourn your sin, seek God’s forgiveness and then experience not only the comfort but the joy and freedom that is found only in Christ.

Blessed are the Poor in Spirit

Matthew 5:3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

” I am not religious but I am spiritual”. If only I had a dollar for every time I have heard that phrase. It has become the new mantra. People who have or want no affiliation with any organized religious group or tradition, still want to be identified as having some commitment to religious/spiritual beliefs and practices. Being spiritual is worn as a something of a badge of honor. Being religious is seen as archaic, cold, legalistic, and often arrogant. Being spiritual is seen as being free, enlightened, on a path to something higher and more noble and humble. Oddly enough I am convinced that the statement of being spiritual is at its heart a prideful thing.

As the first of His famous statements that we call The Beatitudes, Jesus did not say, “Blessed are the spiritual”. In fact He said the exact opposite. He literally said, “Blessed are those who recognize that they are spiritually bankrupt”. That is what is at heart of what Jesus is saying. It is extremely significant that Jesus says this as the first of the “blessed are you” statements. Before you can ever really experience blessing from God you absolutely must recognize how spiritually bankrupt you are. If you are ever going to recognize that you need God, you have to recognize at the core of your being that you are bankrupt without Him.

Going all the way back in the history of human beings our biggest problem is that we have been trying to live as if we did not need God. Saying “I am spiritual” is more about me than it is about God. In fact it is one more step in the process of trying to be our own gods in charge of our own lives. We have tried to deny our own need for God. Being “spiritual” is about my effort to get in touch with and become something other than what I am. It is about be being good enough to reach a higher spiritual plane. All of that sounds wonderful but it is dependent on me, my effort, my storehouse of personal resources and ability to become something more, something good, or holy, or enlightened.

The problem is we are spiritually bankrupt without Jesus Christ. We just don’t want to admit it. It is said that the first step of recovery is admitting your need. Our first step in spiritual recovery is admitting that we have nothing in ourselves that has any spiritual value. We are totally and utterly dependent on God for our spiritual existence. Paul makes it clear in Colossians 2:13-14 that before we come to faith in Christ, we are spiritually dead. That is just another way of saying spiritually bankrupt. We will never be able to get close to God until we can admit how far from Him we really are and how dependent we are on Him for any spiritual life we might have.

The hurdle that we need to overcome is our pride. We are afraid that if we admit that we have nothing to offer spiritually then we are somehow admitting that we are losers and we will be stuck there. What Jesus says is that we are spiritually empty but that he values us far more than we could ever imagine. In spite of the fact that we are spiritually bankrupt, actually because we are spiritually bankrupt and can do nothing for ourselves, Jesus came and died on a cross to open a treasure-house of spiritual life to us. We will not tap into that storehouse unless we are willing to admit that we are in desperate need of what Jesus offers. When you come to that place in your life you will be blessed beyond measure. Don’t be afraid to admit on a daily basis that you are a sinner saved by grace and totally bankrupt in yourself. Yet, because of what Jesus has done, you are filled spiritually everyday by Jesus who loves you more than you can imagine.

Provocative Bible Verses: Sacrificing for Your Enemies

No it does not say “Sacrificing Your Enemies” as good as that might sound at times. Jesus instead was pretty clear and adamant about us making sacrifices on behalf of our enemies. In the Sermon on the Mount he hits this hard.

If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Matthew 5:41

Imagine this scenario if you would. The country in which you live has been conquered by another country that is steadily taking over the entire world. Everywhere you go there are foreign soldiers patrolling the streets. They are proud and boastful. They take what they want from anyone and arrest people whenever they feel like it. On a daily basis people are executed by the soldiers. Women live in fear that they may be violated like their neighbor was last week. Men live in anger and shame over their inability to do anything to protect their family and their possessions. In the midst of all this the occupying army has a law that any soldier may, at any time, grab any citizen and force them to carry their gear for one mile.

That is the context for these words from Jesus. This is not just some theoretical sermon on his part. This was life as faced by his followers everyday. The Roman army had conquered Israel years before. Soldiers were everywhere. In fact a unit was posted in a fortress right next to the Temple, the most holy of places for the Jews. Even when they went to worship they were reminded of being a conquered people. There was even the law about carrying a soldiers gear for one mile. You simply had to do it.

So now imagine that you had a son who was killed by the Romans, or a wife who was raped by them, or a husband who was beaten senseless by them. Then one day as you are heading to the market to buy food for your family, you see some Roman soldiers coming towards you. You keep your head lowered, avoiding eye contact at all costs. You move to the side of the road hoping to stay well out of their way and their notice. They move past you and you let out a quiet sigh of relief that nothing happened and you can move on to the market. Suddenly your heart sinks when you hear one of them shout, “Hey, you! Carry my pack and supplies”. The natural human reaction is to be angry, upset, maybe even a little afraid. You are being forced to go a mile in the wrong direction. In order to get back to where you are now means a total of two miles out of your way. You need to carry the very supplies that this soldier uses to keep your people in subjection and you need to do it so he is not worn out from doing it himself and has more energy to fight your people if need be.

Jesus makes it clear that when you get to the end of the one mile requirement of the law that you should offer freely to carry the pack a second mile. That means a four mile total for you to sacrifice for and serve your enemy and then get back to where you started hours earlier. This is clearly going above and beyond that call of duty. It is in fact where we get the phrase, “going the extra mile”.

In all of this Jesus is giving us a real life example for the principle of loving your enemies. It is a hard principle to follow but that is what makes it so provocative. Picture the response of your enemy at the end of the first mile when you freely offer to go a second. No one has ever done that before. Always in the past they dropped the gear as fast as they could and went rushing back the way they came. Maybe they even mumbled a few choice words as they did so. But you offer with a smile to serve this enemy. He is going to ask, “Why would you do that?” At which point you are given an open door to say, “because I love Jesus and I know he loves you too”.

It really is a matter of what you value most. If you value your agenda, time, pleasure, need for revenge, sense of justice or anything else more than you value fulfilling the call that Jesus has placed on your life, then this is an impossible task. Your reaction will default to complaining, anger or disgust. But if you have as your primary reason for being, to honor Jesus and see more people become worshipers of him, then you will set aside your need for revenge. You will give up your right to grumble and complain over the unfairness of it all. You will avoid the pity party of why this has happened to you. Instead you will, with joy, look at the opportunity that Jesus has given you to show someone what it means to truly follow Him.

That is what it means to be a Provocative Christian. So what is the extra mile you can go for someone? What is the thing you can do for another, even you enemy, so that they ask why you did it and you can point them to Jesus?

Provocative Bible Verses: Nobody is Perfect, But They Should Be!

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. Matthew 5:48

Nobody is perfect is one of the few remaining truisms that has nearly universal agreement among people of every cultural milieu, philosophical system, or religious ideology. It is the standard way of accounting for our short comings both major and minor. We may want to do better and we may want others to do better but there is always the caveat that we know perfection is impossible.

Yet here comes Jesus again with one of his incredibly uncomfortable statements, “Be perfect just like God is perfect”. Talk about raising the bar to a ridiculous level! At least it certainly seems that way. How in the world are we supposed to be perfect like God the Father when we already know that as human beings we can’t be perfect. Jesus Himself seems to acknowledge that we will continue to sin when He teaches the disciples to pray and tells the to ask to be forgiven just as we forgive others. A prayer like that assumes that sin will be an ongoing reality even in the life of the most dedicated of Christ-followers. If that is the case, then how are we to be “perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect”.

Well like all verses in the Bible, context is everything. We need to read the first 47 verses in Chapter 5, the beginning of what know of as The Sermon on the Mount. It is Jesus’ most complete teaching on what the life of a Christ-follower should look like. In what He has already said He has consistently raised the bar. Murder is not just physically killing someone, it is also hating them from the heart. Adultery follows a similar ideal. Retaliating against a person who slaps us, loving our enemies, and being a person who forgives are among the hard things Jesus calls us to in those verses. Each of those things follows on the heels of Jesus saying that He came not to abolish but to fulfill the law. So in some way, what He is teaching has always been the intent of God’s law. There is a sense that what Jesus is saying is that we have stopped short of understanding what the Father has always called for. We have restricted our definitions of what is right and wrong to what we can accomplish with a minimal of effort. What Jesus is saying is that we can not and must not sell ourselves or God short.

This idea of not coming up short is found in the word He uses for “perfect”. It is the Greek word, “telos”. Among other things it has the idea of reaching the goal or the end. A “tele-vision” is something that sends a picture to an end user, just as a tele-phone sends a voice to the end or goal. Telos also has the idea of something being complete. So when Jesus tells us to be perfect as the Father is perfect we need to understand that He is placing before us a goal. There is something that we are striving for. The goal is in fact to become complete in Christ. In order for that to happen there must be no halfway measures. We can’t say, “I never killed someone so I must be okay”. We must ask about our heart and our attitude towards others, not just the external appearance or action. We can’t be content with a little cleaning up of our lives that is better than most. We must always be looking to the Father for the model of how we live.

There are two dangers however that we must be aware of. One is pride. We can easily become spiritually proud thinking that we have accomplished perfection on our own. This was the sin of so many of the Pharisees in Jesus day. The second danger is despair and a feeling that we can’t be good enough to be perfect like God so we give up. I think in both cases that Philippians 1:6 guards us against both these errors, “He who began a good work in you, will bring it to completion at the Day of Christ Jesus”. The word for completion in that verse is the root word “telos”. God is working in you to bring you to complete perfection in Christ. So you need not despair because He WILL see it through and you can not be proud because HE will see it through.

Of course as in all things in our walk with Christ, we are required to put our whole self in. There are no halfway measure or efforts that are acceptable. We are to be radically, provocatively, sold out 100% for Jesus. Yet in being sold to Jesus, we will all the while know that when we fail, He forgives us and carries us on to the goal and that when we succeed, it is ultimately because of His grace and for His glory.

Provocative Bible Verses: Love Your Enemies

When love is seen as nothing more than a fleeting emotion that we can’t control, that we fall in and out of, and that comes and goes in a completely arbitrary way, then it is impossible to obey the command of Jesus to love our enemies. So either something is seriously wrong with our understanding of love, or something is seriously wrong with Jesus. Hmmm, I wonder which one it is? So exactly what was it that Jesus said?

 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. Matthew 5:43-45

Jesus gives us a command that directs how we are to treat people with whom we have major conflicts. He does this in the midst of the Sermon on the Mount in which he has already told us that when we are sued for one thing, we should willingly give up even more. He also said that when someone forces us to do go a mile in order to serve them that we should volunteer to go an extra mile. It is a series of statements about the need to sacrifice our own comfort, position and avoid emotional knee jerk reactions in order to demonstrate a Christ-like character. The command to love our enemies is one more example in that chain.

Although love certainly has an emotional facet to it, it is also a verb, an action that we are to carry out. When Paul tells husbands to “love their wives as Christ loved the church by laying down His life for her” he doesn’t say to do that only when they have warm, fuzzy feelings for their wife. He is saying that we love someone by the way we treat them, no matter how we feel about them. One way of understanding what Jesus is saying when He tells us to love our enemies is that we are to “be loving” by showing them the kindness that we would want shown to us. Jesus is including even our enemies in the definition of who the neighbor is that we are to love. We are to love them as we love ourselves.

He goes on to tell us to pray for those who persecute us. Your first emotional reaction might be to pray that God strikes them down and vindicates you. But when Jesus tells us to pray for those enemies who persecute us, He is telling us to pray that God blesses them. He is telling us to pray that God pours His grace upon them and leads them to a relationship with Him. He is telling us to pray for them in a way that love demands.

In doing this Jesus says we will show that we are children of our heavenly Father. That is what this is all about. How we respond to our enemies should demonstrate who God is. Our own feelings of anger and revenge and hurt are inconsequential compared to the opportunity we have to show people who our Father is and bring Him glory. 

Several years ago I was faced with a person who said and did some things that unjustly caused incredible pain for me and my family. My desire was to strike back but somehow God’s grace kept me from doing that. When his own life started to spin out of control and fall apart I did all I could to show him grace and mercy whenever I ran into him in the community. After two years he got in touch with me to ask forgiveness. He was trying to get his life back in order and get right with God. He told me that the grace I showed him was crucial in causing him to admit his own sin and turn back to Jesus. It was the love of Christ that made the difference. I could have reacted out of my emotion of hurt and anger or I could have acted with the love of Christ. Letting the love of Christ come through saved me from a life of bitterness and him from a life of estrangement from God. 

What motivated me time and again in that situation was the realization that such grace was exactly how God treated me when I was His enemy. The Bible makes it clear that prior to coming to faith in Christ, I was God’s enemy. Yet Jesus prayed for me in John 17 and demonstrated ultimate love by going to the Cross. If that is what Jesus did for me when I was His enemy, how much more should I show His love to fellow human beings who are my enemies? To deny that love to them is to deny the Cross in my own life. To refuse to pray that God bless those who persecute me is to deny that I am a child of my Father, it is to deny God the glory due Him.