Monthly Archives: July 2010

Passion and Passivity

Over the next few months, readers of this blog should get used to commentary about rejecting passivity. I will be working on a project with my comrades in the Brotherhood of St. Joseph. We will create a men’s study guide on five general principles of character development that our church’s men’s ministry emphasizes. Those five principles are:

  • reject passivity
  • accept responsibility
  • lead with courage
  • stay with it
  • seek an eternal reward.

These principles can be thought of as “Five Steps for Becoming a Man of God.” [Four of the five principles are borrowed from a book by Robert Lewis, Raising a Modern-Day Knight: A Father’s Role in Guiding His Son to Authentic Manhood (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1997). “Stay with it” does not appear in the book, but is implied therein.]

(Note to any women reading this: Feel free to continue reading. Although men are my primary target audience here, women can gain something from these principles too. By the way, that “something” is not “ammunition with which to nag your husband.)

So, since rejecting passivity is the first step to becoming a true man of God, I will be reflecting on it a lot in the coming months.

It occurred to me today that “passivity” starts with the same five letters as does “passion.” Yet, these words are virtual opposites. Someone who is passionate cannot be passive at the same time, about the same thing.

Think of the passionate sports fan. A guy who loves football will plan his weekend around the schedule of games on television. He will schedule his other activities to make certain they do not coincide with the “important” games. He may invite his buddies over, and he will be certain the appropriate refreshments are handy before the opening kickoff.  Chips, salsa, and beverages should be right in front of him at game time; he will not have time to move from the couch after that. If, heaven forbid, somebody else forces him to do something that they deem important, at the same time as the “big game,” Mr. Football Fanatic will be certain to set his TiVo, DVR, or whatever other recording device he has available, so that he does not miss it.

My friends know I am not a passionate fan of American football. I will occasionally find myself watching a game, but it is not something I plan. I admit, I am much more passive about football.

In fact, there are really only two sports I am passionate about: soccer and hockey. I will schedule my weekend around a soccer or hockey game. In the case of most other sports, my attitude runs from passive to apathetic. I will watch baseball if I have nothing else to do; I enjoy it, but I can live without it.

Most men are passionate about something. Our problem, though, is that we can get passionate about the wrong things. I have known a few too many Christians who skip church throughout the NFL season. They say they love God, but they are rather passive about their relationship with Him. Their true passion is football, not Jesus.

If you want to know what you are passionate about, just think: What sort of things do you pursue? What do you go out of your way to obtain? There is a huge difference between the things you are passionate about (the things you pursue) and the things you just casually accept (the things you are passive about).

Sadly, many marriages can see this difference in action. How often do young lovers passionately pursue each other? Every waking minute can be a countdown until the moment they will see each other again. When they cannot get together in person, they may spend hours on the phone, talking about the most trivial details of their days as if they were headline news events. When they were together, their eyes were glued to their beloved’s face.

A few years into marriage, and the wife might sit on the husband’s lap, and he will say, “Hey, you’re in the way! I cannot see the TV!” Passion gives way to passivity. He will get around to her when he cannot find anything on TV. Other passions have taken her place in his heart.

So, perhaps rejecting passivity is not really as hard it may sound. Perhaps the key is to develop a passion for the things that matter to God. What are some of the things that matter to Him?

  • My relationship with God (including prayer and Bible study)
  • My relationship with my wife
  • My relationship with other family (son, grandson, etc.)
  • The ministries He has called me to serve in
  • My job, particularly as a means to serve others in His name

It is not wrong to have other passions. However, the man of God must develop a passion, first and foremost, for the things that matter to the Lord. When a man lacks passion in any of these important areas, it might mean he has invested passion in something that does not matter.

Once you find a passion, you need to hold onto it. Humans can be incredibly passionate, but we can also be fickle. We stay passionate about something for as long as it is new, exciting, unusual, or for as long as there are new things to learn about it. Once it becomes comfortable, familiar and reliable, passion gives way to passivity.

So, take a look at yourself: Do you have a passion for God? Do you have a passion for the people God wants you to be passionate about? Are there areas where you should have more passion? If so, what can you do to develop a passion in those areas? These are the questions I will be asking myself in the coming months. I hope you ask yourself the same questions, and ask God to show you the truth about yourself. Then, may He ignite a fire in your heart for the things He is passionate about.

Categories: Bible meditations, Family, Spiritual reflections | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Cheap Grace or Transforming Grace?

This article is based on a sermon I delivered several years ago at People’s Church, Long Beach, NY. This is an almost verbatim transcript of my sermon, published in my church’s (Nassau International Assembly) newsletter shortly thereafter.

(Please read: Isaiah 55:1–9; 1 Corinthians 10:1–13; Luke 13:1–9)

The theme of God’s grace permeates each of these Bible passages. In First Corinthians and Luke, it is mingled with warnings of judgment. But even there, God’s grace is revealed.

I realize many people cannot comprehend how you can talk about a gracious God and a God of judgment in the same breath. This is because many Christians misunderstand grace. Since the New Testament consistently teaches that eternal life is received by grace through faith in Christ (Ephesians 2:8–9), we should understand what God’s grace really is, so that we can understand the foundation of our relationship with Him.

In seminary I learned the textbook definition of grace: “unmerited favor.” In other words, grace means that you receive a good thing that you do not deserve; in fact, you might deserve bad instead of good. It is certainly true that we all need God’s grace, because as Romans 3:23 tells us, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” We do not deserve eternal life.

Many Christians think grace means they can somehow buy an easy ticket to heaven. In many churches, people are invited to the altar at the end of the service to say a sinner’s prayer. Many pray assuming their motives do not matter; they might have gone up only because of a friend’s nudging. Some say the prayer after being moved by a really well-preached sermon which they will probably forget tomorrow. I once knew a guy who went forward at an altar call simply because he wanted to meet this well-known preacher!

German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer coined a phrase for such a distorted understanding of grace. He called it “cheap grace.” In his classic devotional, The Cost of Discipleship, he spoke of it as preaching “forgiveness without requiring repentance,” offering “communion without confession” and “absolution without contrition.”

I ask you: do you treat the means of grace in this manner? Do you come to church and assume God forgives your sins during the week just because you worshipped for one hour? Do you partake of the Lord’s Supper as a mere ritual, or do you sincerely seek and expect a meeting with Christ through communion? Do you expect easy entry into heaven someday just because a priest or minister sprinkled or poured water on your head when you were younger, or because you said “amen” to the prayer at the end of a Billy Graham broadcast one night?

This cheap grace mentality was the issue Paul was confronting when he wrote 1 Corinthians 10. Perhaps as you read you noticed the parallels he drew between baptism and communion and the experiences of the Israelites when they left Egypt. They were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea (v. 2); we have been baptized with water in the name of Jesus Christ. They ate the spiritual food, manna, and drank a spiritual drink of water that flowed miraculously from a rock (vv. 3 and 4). We partake of spiritual food and drink when we participate in communion. Yet, Paul points out, many of these people who had been delivered from slavery and called to enter the Promised Land did not finish the journey. They assumed they could live like the Egyptians God just judged: they engaged in idolatry and worshipped false gods; they committed acts of immorality; they grumbled against God; they tested Him, daring Him to prove Himself on their terms. In First Corinthians, Paul mentions such activity in the church and, twice in chapter 10, points out that the judgments upon the Israelites were recorded as examples to us. The Israelites could not point back to the Red Sea and say, “Ha! There you go, God. You won’t judge me after going through all that trouble to deliver me from bondage, will you?” Nor can we say, “Hey, now that I’ve done my religious duty, God will ignore all my sins for the rest of the week.” Paul warns us: “Let him who thinks he stands take heed that he does not fall” (1 Corinthians 10:11).

But then comes the good news: “No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it” (v. 13). God’s grace does not just bring you out of your personal Egypt; it does not merely give you the opportunity to hear the Gospel and believe. Grace provides forgiveness of your sins, along with the means for obtaining victory over your current temptations. When you truly understand grace, you realize that God not only desires to forgive you of your sins, but to help you overcome them. Even though sin shows one’s reckless disregard for God, He still offers to forgive. He realizes how much sin holds you back from the abundant life He intended for you to live, and He is eager to lead you into that abundant life. He is more eager to give it than we are to receive.

Transforming grace provides the way of escape from temptation. Temptation is inevitable in this life. People are going to do things that test your patience. Old habits that you have not given in to for a while will still entice you. But, God will provide a way of escape. Too many Christians think their faith just guarantees forgiveness after they sin. But, it also provides resources for resisting temptation. Many do not realize that things as simple as prayer or memorizing Scripture can help one resist temptation. The spiritual power we receive in the baptism in the Holy Spirit enables us to withstand temptation. And just like the Bible records cases of judgment as examples to us, it also records the lives of godly people and how they faced problems and temptations, so that we can follow their examples when we are tested.

We see God’s transforming grace as He holds back the hand of judgment. A friend of mine once tried to prove there was no God by saying, “Okay God, if you’re there, strike me dead…. See, no God.” Of course, God did not answer that prayer. Just because God did not answer that prayer does not mean He does not exist. It only proves that He means everything He says in the Scriptures: 2 Peter 3:9 tells us that God wishes that none should perish, but that all may come to repentance.

We see this divine patience in Jesus’ parable in Luke 13. What vine dresser would allow a fruitless vine to take up space for three years? But, the vine dresser, in response to the call for destruction, pleads for one more year and more diligent effort on the vine’s behalf. Likewise, God frequently gives fresh opportunities for repentance, even when from a human perspective all hope seems lost.

As long as you have breath, God calls with the invitation to transformation. He invites you, in the words of Isaiah, “Every one who thirsts, come to the waters; and you who have no money come, buy and eat. Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost” (Isaiah 55:1). He invites us to eat and drink of the true spiritual nourishment. He invites us to seek the Lord while He may be found; to call upon Him while He is near. He invites the wicked to forsake his way, and the unrighteous man to forsake his thoughts.

Have you been relying on cheap grace? Come to Christ; receive the goodness He offers. He will have compassion and abundantly pardon all your sins as you turn to Him for true, transforming grace.

Categories: Bible meditations, Spiritual reflections | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Celebrating Freedom

Happy Fourth of July! Many of you will spend the day at barbecues and beaches, or celebrating in some other way that emphasizes fun and summer. The rocket’s red glare of fireworks is a staple of the day. My wife and I will attend church in the morning, then visit a friend in Manhattan. He just broke a bone in his foot this week, so instead of strolling around the city finding things to do and sites to see (as we usually do when we visit him), we will probably just hang out in his apartment all day. Joyce and I will probably view the fireworks display in the city before returning to Long Island.

In the midst of it all, we need to keep in mind why we celebrate the Fourth of July. Our nation’s Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence around July 4, 1776 (it took several days to gather all the signatures). They took a stand against a tyrannical government and demanded liberty.

It would be prudent for us to read these words again. We occasionally hear people talk about what America is all about, only to find out that such people do not know the core principles that led to our nation’s founding.

We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness….

It is true that our nation has not always lived up to those ideals. For much of America’s history, “all men are created equal” seemed to have the hidden disclaimer, “If their skin is light enough, that is.” However, these are values that have driven our great nation, and led us to often rise above our past mistakes.

Today, though, the values inscribed in that Declaration are rapidly being lost. Many Americans live as though the Declaration promises us the rights to “liberty and happiness.” Well, it protects our right to life, but not everybody’s. Those who are an inconvenience—the unborn, the severely handicapped, the elderly—well, they’re better off dead, aren’t they?

If we hope to restore America, we must restore a basic belief in the dignity of the individual. As a Christian, I am firmly convinced that God Almighty sees you as a human being, in His image, from the moment of conception. Government does not grant you the right to life: God grants it, the moment you are conceived. Government has an obligation before Him to honor and protect that right.

“Liberty” and the “pursuit of happiness” fare no better, no matter how much we emphasize a “do what makes you feel good” lifestyle. Sad to say, both of these inalienable rights are in demise, for a number of reasons. We are all too eager to surrender liberty in the name of security. Let the government take care of us. Let it provide our healthcare and our other needs. While it is at it, let the government tell us what we should eat or drink, how we should discipline our children, or which Bible stories to teach our children.

This morning,  I heard a radio news report about a family that was losing custody of their children. Apparently, their crime was attending a church that believes in faith healing. Granted, some parents have gotten too carried away, thinking God always heals only by miraculous intervention. As a result, some  parents may have done irreparable damage to their children’s health and well-being: perhaps even allowing them to die, refusing to seek medical attention. Maybe these parents were like that; apparently, some children whose parents attended that church had died needlessly. However, it is not just parents who, in the name of “faith,” refuse traditional medical attention  that lose custody of their children.

In recent years, there have been several cases where parents lost custody of their children because they sought “alternative therapies” for their children, because those treatments were more consistent with their religious convictions.

My point here is not to criticize individual parents, but to raise the question: How much are we willing to trust the government and surrender liberty? Many Americans have already surrendered our rights to smoke in restaurants, drink non-pasteurized (raw) milk, refuse to have our children immunized, share a beer with our 18- to 20-year-old children, etc. Are we so stupid that we need some bureaucrats to tell us what is in the best interests of our families? Can a reasonable adult not be allowed to make decisions, even on controversial subjects, about everyday matters of life?

Perhaps we have surrendered these rights because we assume that government has the authority to give them to us. Read that statement from the Declaration of Independence again: “[People] are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” Government does not give the right to life: God does. The United States Supreme Court had no more right to issue its Roe v. Wade decision than Adolf Hitler did to institute his “final solution” of the “Jewish problem.”

We have a right to life because God is the Giver of life.

We have liberty because Christ has given us liberty to follow Him (read Galatians 5, the entire chapter).

We have the right to pursue happiness within the parameters God has ordained.

Government, the media, academia, etc., do not grant these rights. God gives them. Government has an obligation before God to protect those rights; other cultural elements have a right (at times, even an obligation) to promote those rights.

So, I have begun my Independence Day celebration by exercising one of my favorite rights as an American: the rights of free speech and free religious expression, expressed in the First Amendment of the Constitution. Let us be bold to preserve our freedoms by seeking the One who offers us true freedom.

Categories: Politics | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

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