Could Islam Become Peace-Loving?

(Some of this blog is reprinted from my blog, “Is Allah God?”)

Pundits, politicians, and a few scholars say Islam is a peace-loving religion. When they say it, I detect a tone of rosy optimism that subtly reveals they are either hoping it’s true or trying to spin reality in order to appease moderate and non-practicing Muslims.

But many believe that in order for Islam to be authentically peace-loving, it would need a reformation similar to the one Christianity experienced 500 years ago that provided the theological underpinnings for western civilization. The pundits, who sincerely believe what they are saying, are seduced by their lack of belief in spiritual power. The reason Islam cannot experience a reformation is that the spirit behind Islam will not allow it.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the popular author of the best-selling book, Heretic, Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now, has hope. She is urging the Islamic world to have a reformation similar to that of Christendom. She wants Islam to:

  1. Amend Muhammad’s semi-divine status, along with the literalist reading of the Quran.
  2. Amend the supremacy of life after death.
  3. Amend Shariah, the vast body of religious legislation.
  4. Amend the right of individual Muslims to enforce Islamic law.
  5. Amend the imperative to wage jihad, or holy war.

I do not believe this will happen. Christian reformation happened because the practices of the Church had veered away from Scripture and the reformers were demanding a higher view of Scripture in both faith and practice. In other words, our reformation facilitated an emphasis on the Scriptures and thus, the life-giving Spirit of God. The opposite is the case for Islam. When Muslims adopt a higher view of the Koran, they are radicalized, not for representing the love of God, peace, respect for others and forgiveness, but for a harsh demand of obedience to Allah and annihilation of those who don’t comply.

For there to be a reformation of Islam comparable to the Christian reformation, its adherents would need to grow away from the tenets of their faith and adopt a lower view of the Koran’s teachings. In other words, they would need to separate themselves from the spirit of Allah and turn, instead, to the Spirit of life. When Christians become devoted, they increasingly adhere to the teachings of the Bible that encourages them to love, forgive, turn the other cheek, be healing, and be kind. When Muslims become devoted, they tend to go a different direction.

Certainly we’ve seen that not all of those who claim to be Christians are immune to demonic ideas themselves. But our historic mistakes have not been representative of Christ or the New Testament, Spirit-filled life he offers, even though some Christians will try to use the Scriptures to defend their own atrocities. President Obama was right when he reminded Christians at The National Prayer Breakfast of what we as Christians do when we are not operating in the life-giving Spirit of God, but are religious ourselves. He said, “And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.”

Jesus experienced this when Satan tempted him in the wilderness by using the Scriptures against him. God’s good work within the human heart is a spiritual uplift, an enlightenment, an ascent to a higher way of thinking. It lightens the load of life and provides encouragement. It is not the religious bigotry that some wrongly promote.

An open hearted reading of the New Testament offers God’s solution to wickedness in the human heart and removes the opportunity for outside evil influence, if and only if we submit to the Lordship of Christ and are filled with the Holy Spirit. If not, we’ll find ourselves hating and warring just like all who follow the “god of this world.”

Bottom line, any time we human beings depart from the Spirit of the one true God who is loving, redemptive, forgiving, healing, and kind, we find ourselves manifesting our own fallen natures influenced by the deadly god of this world. But this is the opposite of our Christian faith. Christian reformers had only to point to the Scriptures to teach us this. To what do Islamic reformers have to point their followers?

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The Planned Parenthood Shooter

Yesterday Robert Dear from North Carolina killed police officer Garrett Swasey, a former athlete turned police officer, near the Planned Parenthood Clinic in Colorado Springs. Though the two were within yards of one another, they saw the world very, very differently. At the same moment, only two miles away in the comfort of my office, I was also experiencing a different world.

Today I expect to start hearing projections as to why this gunner targeted Planned Parenthood, and why he chose to shoot and ultimately kill and injure people in our community.

As my wife and I were falling asleep last night, we spoke at length about the way people see situations so differently. I see this contrast in perceptions regularly, even among the people of our church. Different people see situations and others differently based on their own values, experiences, and educations that filter their perceptions.

In addition, we all have, to varying degrees, cognitive distortions, which are thought patterns that cause irrational or exaggerated conclusions. Whoever this shooter was, I’m sure we’ll learn more about his cognitive distortions that caused him to justify, in his own mind, the tragedy he created yesterday. And with each one, we’ll shake our heads wondering how he could possibly think that way.

I teach a class on Sunday nights on Renewing Your Mind: How To Change Your Brain. A portion of that class deals with our seeing things realistically and then responding responsibly. Therapists that emphasize how behaviors are influenced by our thinking (Cognitive Behavioral and Reality Therapists) often use a list of cognitive distortions to help clients identify their own cognitive distortions so they can respond to life more rationally.

Two week ago I wrote a blog entitled “What? That’s Not What Happened!” listing a few of these cognitive distortions.

As Gayle and I were talking last night, we reviewed how our awareness of cognitive distortions can help all of us think through events and choose our responses with greater wisdom. In the context of yesterday’s craziness on the first day of this Christmas season, I thought a more thorough review might be helpful for all of us (This is my adaptation of the checklist by David Burns from Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy)

  1. Polarized thinking: When we look at things in absolute — all or nothing categories, we are typically thinking too simplistically. Things are seldom exclusively good or bad, black or white, right or wrong. Instead, there are exceptions, explanations, and nuances that cause most people and situations to fall into a gray area between the extremes.
  2. Overgeneralization: When we overgeneralize, we use words like always, never, everyone, best, and worst. Generalizations are seldom, if ever, true. There is typically at least one exception. 
  3. Discounting the positives: When we  discount the positive accomplishments or qualities of ourselves or others, and focus only on the negative, we or they feel insignificant and powerless.
  4. Jumping to conclusions: (A) Mind reading – we assume that we know what other people are feeling or thinking. When we do this, we think we know the motivations of others. Since we rarely understand our own motivations, to presume to know the motivations of another is a significant projection that is seldom accurate; (B) Fortune Telling – we arbitrarily predict the outcome of events or future development in the lives of others.
  5. Magnification or Minimization: We blow things way out of proportion or we shrink their significance, which distorts their value.
  6. Emotional Reasoning: We draw conclusions based on how we feel, assuming our feelings reflect some reality.
  7. Should Statements: We judge others using words like should, shouldn’t, must, and ought. “Have to” is a similar offender. These are sometimes necessary for personal application, and we may sparingly and cautiously use them in reference to those within our chain-of-command, but they can reveal a major distortion of personal significance when used randomly toward others.
  8. Labeling: We draw comfort by simplistically seeing people and situations in categories, boxes, silos, classifications, or stereotypes. This leads to sexism, racism, bigotry, and other generalizations that do not take into account the uniqueness of individuals or specific situations.
  9. Personalization: We assume that what people are doing or saying is about or because of us, when in fact it might not have anything to do with us.
  10. Blame: Our greatest potential for choice is between some event and our response to it. We choose our responses. They are not forced upon us, which is why we are responsible for how we choose to respond. So when we blame, we are giving more power over our lives to others, and denying our own abilities.

It’s too early to know why the Planned Parenthood shooter did what he did. But now we have an opportunity to comfort those who have been hurt by his actions, pray for healing in the lives of those involved, and do everything we can to learn from this horrific tragedy how to respond to actions and views we disagree with in constructive, godly ways.

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Leveraging Your Money

Today is Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, which marks the unofficial beginning of the Christmas season. All day yesterday, while I was enjoying my family’s Thanksgiving celebration, my phone kept beeping with an endless stream of e-mails beaconing me to buy online now so I could save huge amounts of money. It seems every retailer and benevolent organization is aimed at extracting funds from me in light of the generosity this season elicits. In response, I’ve made this the only time of the year I teach about money. Why? Because we all want to give and spend wisely. So, here is my plea: give cheerfully and generously as your heart leads, and remember to leverage your money for you and your family’s future instead of foolishly spending it.

God’s perfect will for all of us is partially revealed in three key verses:

  • John 10:10 where Jesus said, “The thief’s purpose is to steal and kill and destroy. My purpose is to give them a rich and satisfying life”,
  • 2 Corinthians 8:9 where Paul writes, “You know the generous grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty he could make you rich, and,
  • 2 Corinthians 9:8 where he also writes, “And God will generously provide all you need. Then you will always have everything you need and plenty left over to share with others.”

These and other powerful Scriptures reveal God’s will for us, but I’m always reluctant to teach them because others abuse them. Paul addresses our response to abusive leaders when he writes, “After all, you think you are so wise, but you enjoy putting up with fools! You put up with it when someone enslaves you, takes everything you have, takes advantage of you, takes control of everything, and slaps you in the face.” But since God’s Word is true, I realize I shouldn’t allow those who misuse these Scriptures keep me from encouraging fellow believers to be blessed by obeying them.

So I met with a group of businessmen from our church and we reviewed the Scriptures relating to this subject, (see Deuteronomy 28:12, Malachi 3:8-12, Matthew 6:24, 23:23, and 25:29, Luke 6:38 and 16:10-12, John 10:10, Acts 20:35b, Galatians 6:7, 2 Corinthians 9: 6-11a and 11: 19-20, Hebrews 7, 2 Timothy 2:20-21). Then I asked them how, from their experience, God blessed them and others they’ve known who are givers.

As you might imagine, the men gave me a long list of ways God has multiplied their giving through the years. Three ideas stood out to me as they spoke:

  1. Tithers become increasingly responsible. The highest earners in the world are paid well because they are reliable. They have safe hands and can be trusted to get the job done. They are stable, dependable, and faithful to complete tasks. People who are responsible are obviously positioned to earn more than those who are irresponsible.
  2. Tithers develop marketable skills. When God wants tasks done here on earth, he calls on people who are capable of doing them. God inspires givers, they said, with a desire to do quality work, and with the desire to learn and improve their skills. People who are competent earn more than the inept.
  3. Tithers develop social skills. These men reported to me that through the years they have observed that when people give to their local church, their social skills improve. It’s an interesting observation, but they said when people consistently invest in their local church, the group dynamic they are investing in gives them motivation to improve their manners. And of course, a person with manners has an advantage over the one who is socially unacceptable. Thus the giver who has developed social skills has greater earning potential.

These men also described supernatural favor with others in key positions, how God gives opportunities to givers, and the flow of good ideas that are evident in givers, all naturally resulting in increased income. I gathered from their discussion that God is very pragmatic in the ways he blesses those who give.

So my conclusion: If every one of us would tithe 10% to our local churches in response to biblical principles, invest 10% of our income in financial investments, improving our skills, or earning a marketable education, and then live on the 80% that’s left, we would leverage our funds so well that, relatively quickly, our investments would produce more income than our labor, and we would have “ . . . everything we need and plenty left over to share with others.”

(If you would like more on this subject, you can order my booklet, “Serve God, Uses Money” on Amazon.com)

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What? That’s Not What Happened!

Improving Our Perceptions

Perception is reality, or so it seems. I’ve served as a pastor for thousands of people over the past 40 years, yet I continue to be amazed when I hear people recount an experience or recite something they heard someone else say with a slant that reveals more about them than the actual story. Why do we do this? Because all of us see through the filters of our own knowledge and values, and we judge based on our perceptions.

And since our perceptions are distorted to some degree, we all need good churches and friends who can speak deeply, and sometimes confrontationally, into our lives.

I once spoke with a woman who was making damaging decisions for her family. She reminded me of the second half of the Bible verse, “A wise woman builds her home, but a foolish women tears it down with her own hands” (Proverbs 14:1). I gently tried to point out to her the direction her decisions were taking her and the outcome they could produce in her family, but she rejected my comments and refused to see her situation apart from her own perception. She’s now alone, divorced, and estranged from her children.

Through the years, I’ve observed many wise women who’ve learned the skills necessary for building a stable and strong home and family. And through the years, I’ve also observed many women who have unwittingly torn down their own homes and families. In most cases, the foolish ones never know what they did and typically they blame others for their family’s demise. (Others, no doubt, share the blame, but we all must ask what our part is—how do we help to build or heal rather than contribute to the destruction.)

This idea applies to men as well. It applies to all of our lives, families, and relationships.

In the class I am teaching on “Renewing Our Minds, How To Change Our Brains,” we are learning about Paul’s exhortations to think certain ways and how this actually changes our physical brains and, as a result, our behaviors. Along with biblical insight, we are discussing materials from reality and cognitive therapists who emphasize how our behavioral responses reflect our thinking.

Below are a few of the cognitive distortions we’ve discussed in class that impact how we see ourselves, our circumstances, and others that may cause us inadvertently to harm those we care about.

  • Maximize/Minimize: In Matthew 23:24 Jesus warns against “straining at gnats, but swallowing camels.” He is referring to us filtering events. For example, we take the negative details and magnify them while filtering out all positive aspects of a situation; or we maximize what is insignificant while minimizing what is truly significant.
  • Polarized Thinking: In polarized thinking, we see things simplistically. Things are black or white, right or wrong, good or bad. Polarized thinking avoids gray areas and nuances. It’s easier to have this kind of certainty, but it’s seldom accurate.
  • Overgeneralization. All generalizations are false. When we overgeneralize, we often come to a conclusion based on a single incident or a single piece of evidence rather than accepting that everyone and every situation is in a continuum of change. When we overgeneralize, we overuse words like “always” and “never.”
  • Jumping to Conclusions. This cognitive distortion causes us to think we know what others are feeling or their motivations. We think we know, but in fact, we are simply presuming to know.
  • Personalization is a distortion where we believe that everything others do or say directly relates to us.
  • Blaming. We hold other people responsible for our decisions or our happiness. For example, “Stop making me feel bad about myself!” Nobody can “make” us feel any particular way — only we have control over our emotions and responses.
  • Fallacy of Change. We expect that other people will change to suit us if we just pressure or cajole them enough. We need to change people because our hopes for happiness seem to depend entirely on them.

So how do we change our perceptions to make them closer to reality? How do we change them so we can respond to others in a more Christ-like way?

We intentionally grow in Christ, renew our minds, and develop quality friendships.

If we think about it, we can identify our distortions. Others have been pointing them out to us for a long time—either verbally or through their actions. But if we don’t know, we should ask someone we trust.

I have often said that if our enemies are the first ones to tell us the truth, then we don’t have any authentic friends. If we have friends, they can help us see more clearly what our distortions are so we can make changes to improve our lives and relationships. If we don’t have friends, we can start taking steps in our local church and community to make friends that will help us build healthy, stable lives and relationships.

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The Four Questions

I discovered four questions in William Glasser’s Choice Theory several years ago that have helped me identify solutions in my life, and I’ve used them to help others do the same. In public meetings and private counseling sessions, I’ve found these four questions initially get some laughs, but then they challenge all of us to think intentionally about creating more satisfying and productive lives for ourselves. As we grow in Christ and in wisdom, our answers to these four questions can help us develop the lives we want.

1. What do you want? For most Christians, their answers are connected to their faith and calling. But I encourage them to think beyond that, about their desires to be physically safe, secure in their relationships, and accepted and respected by others. It always makes Christians smile when I ask them about the amount of money they want (because, of course, everything is more convenient when they have more money), and how much influence they think they need to be happy. I also ask them whether they have enough control over their lives at home or at work (or maybe on Facebook) to experience the significance they desire. I ask them how much freedom they want in contrast to the amount they have and if their desires for adventure and fun are being met.

Asking people what they want always leads to engaging conversations. People come for counseling because they are unhappy with something in their lives. Giving them permission to identify what they want often causes them to contemplate their answers seriously.

Because we Christians are trained to serve Christ first, others second, and ourselves third, we are sometimes deeply dissatisfied but don’t understand why; after all, we are faithful Christians and that, we believe, should suffice. But if we are unhappy, dissatisfied, or empty inside, we need to talk that through in a non-judgmental setting or we might make some horrible mistakes. This leads to the second question.

2. What are you currently doing to get what you want? Sadly, most of us do things that do not lead us to the life we really want. If we live according to instinct or as a reaction to others, our lives often become the opposite of what we intended. So I ask people to realistically assess their behaviors. And that leads to the third question.

3. So, how’s that working out for you? This question always makes people laugh (or cry) because they did not come for counseling because everything is ok. They came because something is not lining up with the life they envision for themselves.

For most of us, some of our behaviors are helping, and some are not. I tell people that negative things happen naturally, but good things require intentionality. If we need to make changes, it actually does not matter where we are in life currently, what matters is the trajectory we establish to go forward toward what we want.

At this point we discuss how everything in their lives affects everything else in their lives — that their spiritual life will give them ideals, motivations, and power, but then they have to make choices that will impact their thoughts, their emotions, and their behaviors. And these four elements (spirituality, thoughts, emotions, and behaviors) can work together to get them where they want to go if they are intentional.

This concept is always a relief because it communicates that no one is trapped, victimized, or without power over their future. We have God-given abilities to move our lives in the direction we want to go, but we must be intentional. If we are random, we might be the ones creating misery in our own lives. This idea leads to the fourth, very helpful question:

4. What can you do, that you are not currently doing, to get you what you want? At this point, biblical principles come to life in a powerful and meaningful way. We always have choices to make that can move us forward and help us achieve what we truly want. None of us are ever trapped. Regardless of our current situations, we can make choices that will move us in a positive direction.

The inspiration of the Holy Spirit and the directives of Scripture help us set priorities and motivate us to improve our lives. But very often we have difficulty identifying the practical steps necessary to achieve our goals. These four questions can help us create a path that leads to the deep satisfaction and happiness we’re seeking.

These questions give us direction about who and what we should love, and where we need to place boundaries. The answers to these questions establish how we should spend our time, our money, and our energy. The answers to these questions tell us whether we need to receive an additional degree or certification, lose weight, exercise, or memorize the Scripture.

The point is these four questions give us a framework for intentionally achieving what we truly want in our lives. Our spiritual lives give us power and motivation; these four questions help us discover a methodology for getting there.

More next week.

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The Blame Blog

I gave my life to the Lord in June of 1972. Since that time, I’ve enjoyed learning the Scriptures, functioning in the body of Christ, and growing in relationship with the Lord. But to my surprise, as the years passed and I became stronger in my faith and my walk, I discovered I had inadvertently surrendered Jesus’ Lordship in my life to others.

I lived a successful life until 2006. My spiritual growth was healthy and my relationships were strong. My wife, Gayle, and I enjoyed a loving relationship, and we enjoyed raising our five children together (and continue to delight in our relationships with them to this day).

But in 2006, I crashed. When I crashed, I did what I thought was right and surrendered all of my accomplishments, personal power, and influence to others. For the first time since childhood, I became totally dependent on others. Now I reflect back on that season of dependence upon others as the greatest mistake of my life. I believe that in hoping others would do what I was ultimately responsible to do, I forfeited Christ’s Lordship and as a result, so many, including myself, suffered horribly.

As a result, the church I now pastor, St. James Church, is thriving under the philosophy that each of us is responsible to become stronger, more capable people in Christ. This philosophy is developing a unique church in a national culture that accommodates blame, weakness, and victimization. We stand apart from those who give people excuses for the failures in their lives as being the result of disappointing or dysfunctional relationships, trauma, pain, and/or past experiences. Instead, we have learned that in Christ we can be filled with the power of God and renewed in our minds, which gives us the motivation to overcome the impact of past traumas and to grow in competence and strength. As a result, we can then discover effective tools or steps that enable us to live in freedom, and to thrive and grow in the Lordship of Christ, rather than under the power of alternative lords.

For example, if I say, “My boss makes me so angry,” I am saying that my boss is lord over my emotions, not Christ. It may be true that my boss might do things that I don’t like, but I don’t have to give him or her power over my emotions, I do have other choices.

If I say, “I have an addiction problem because of a trauma I suffered 10 years ago,” I am saying that I am incapable of overcoming that trauma, that my trauma is now lord over me, and I will be identified by it and victimized by it the balance of my life.

We don’t have to be that weak. For example, it might be true that trauma has impacted us in a significant way, but that does not mean we must surrender to the effects of that trauma for the rest of our lives, making that trauma lord over us. We don’t have to be defined by our traumas. That is, we don’t have to surrender to the lordship of trauma when Jesus is, in fact, our Lord. Identifying trauma may help us understand certain behaviors, thoughts, and difficulties, but we can make choices to disempower trauma’s lordship and establish Jesus’ Lordship over us.

When I learned that a traumatic childhood experience resulted in some incongruity that I dealt with as an adult, others assumed it was an excuse, a way of evading responsibility. I never saw it that way; instead, I saw it as information which gave me the understanding I needed so that, empowered by Christ, I could overcome the effects of that trauma and live a healthy life. I’ve done that.

So my word of caution is: if you are talking to a pastor, counselor, or friend about an issue in your life and they allow you to blame your situation on another, dismiss their counsel. Then go talk to someone else who will explore your options with you. If their intent is to help you get to a better place, even with the facts as they are, then you will be empowered to make good decisions and improve your situation. You can’t control others, and you can’t change your past, but you can control, or gain control, over yourself, your choices, and your responses. And you can improve your future.

As soon as you blame others, you are acknowledging their lordship over you, and you’ll find yourself powerless and victimized.

But you always have options. The Lord will never allow you to be in a situation where there is no way of escape. He will always point us in the direction of healing.

More about this next week.

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Christians De-Throning Christ

I gave my life to the Lord in June of 1972. Since that time, I’ve enjoyed learning the Scriptures, functioning in the body of Christ, and growing in relationship with the Lord. But to my surprise, as the years passed and I became stronger in my faith and my walk, I discovered I had inadvertently surrendered Jesus’ Lordship in my life to others.

I lived a successful life until 2006. My spiritual growth was healthy and my relationships were strong. My wife, Gayle, and I enjoyed a loving relationship, and we enjoyed raising our five children together (and continue to delight in our relationships with them to this day).

But in 2006, I crashed. When I crashed, I did what I thought was right and surrendered all of my accomplishments, personal power, and influence to others. For the first time since childhood, I became totally dependent on others. Now I reflect back on that season of dependence upon others as the greatest mistake of my life. I believe that in hoping others would do what I was ultimately responsible to do, I forfeited Christ’s Lordship and as a result, so many, including myself, suffered horribly.

As a result, the church I now pastor, St. James Church, is thriving under the philosophy that each of us is responsible to become stronger, more capable people in Christ. This philosophy is developing a unique church in a national culture that accommodates blame, weakness, and victimization. We stand apart from those who give people excuses for the failures in their lives as being the result of disappointing or dysfunctional relationships, trauma, pain, and/or past experiences. Instead, we have learned that in Christ we can be filled with the power of God and renewed in our minds, which gives us the motivation to overcome the impact of past traumas and to grow in competence and strength. As a result, we can then discover effective tools or steps that enable us to live in freedom, and to thrive and grow in the Lordship of Christ, rather than under the power of alternative lords.

For example, if I say, “My boss makes me so angry,” I am saying that my boss is lord over my emotions, not Christ. It may be true that my boss might do things that I don’t like, but I don’t have to give him or her power over my emotions, I do have other choices.

If I say, “I have an addiction problem because of a trauma I suffered 10 years ago,” I am saying that I am incapable of overcoming that trauma, that my trauma is now lord over me, and I will be identified by it and victimized by it the balance of my life.

We don’t have to be that weak. For example, it might be true that trauma has impacted us in a significant way, but that does not mean we must surrender to the effects of that trauma for the rest of our lives, making that trauma lord over us. We don’t have to be defined by our traumas. That is, we don’t have to surrender to the lordship of trauma when Jesus is, in fact, our Lord. Identifying trauma may help us understand certain behaviors, thoughts, and difficulties, but we can make choices to disempower trauma’s lordship and establish Jesus’ Lordship over us.

When I learned that a traumatic childhood experience resulted in some incongruity that I dealt with as an adult, others assumed it was an excuse, a way of evading responsibility. I never saw it that way; instead, I saw it as information which gave me the understanding I needed so that, empowered by Christ, I could overcome the effects of that trauma and live a healthy life. I’ve done that.

So my word of caution is: if you are talking to a pastor, counselor, or friend about an issue in your life and they allow you to blame your situation on another, dismiss their counsel. Then go talk to someone else who will explore your options with you. If their intent is to help you get to a better place, even with the facts as they are, then you will be empowered to make good decisions and improve your situation. You can’t control others, and you can’t change your past, but you can control, or gain control, over yourself, your choices, and your responses. And you can improve your future.

As soon as you blame others, you are acknowledging their lordship over you, and you’ll find yourself powerless and victimized.

But you always have options. The Lord will never allow you to be in a situation where there is no way of escape. He will always point us in the direction of healing.

More about this next week.

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When Paul Said “Our Flesh,” Could He Have Literally Meant Our Flesh?

“Ted, you do not have a spiritual problem. You are spiritually strong,” said the lead therapist of a team of counselors who met with me in 2006. My goal in being there was to determine why I struggled with an incongruent issue in my life.

“You test in normal ranges on all of our tests. You are mentally and emotionally healthy,” he continued, “your ability to reason is substantial. If your struggle was spiritual or rational, you would have settled this long ago. But it is neither of those – it’s physiological.”

The doctor continued, “You experienced a traumatic incident when you were a child that you have never addressed. That trauma conflicts so much with who you are, your faith, culture, commitments, and relationships, that you have ignored it until now. But now it’s demanding expression. That’s why you thought it was spiritual. It was so contrary to everything you stand for, you couldn’t imagine it being part of who you are. But it is. It’s physical, and we know how to work with it. You’ll go through trauma resolution therapy while here. It will force your brain to deal with an incident in your life that you’ve resented for over 40 years. Once this is integrated, it will effectively give you relief, and as time passes, that relief will be progressive. This will be an answer to your prayers.”

This conversation changed my life. It gave me the explanation I needed to go forward because it explained so many things Paul said about himself, and it clarified my own growth process in Christ.

I had been confused in 2006 about the events that transpired because I was sincere in my beliefs and commitments, and at that time I thought my sincere devotion was enough to help me overcome anything. I was not a hypocrite or a manipulator. I sincerely loved God, the Scriptures, and the Church. But I struggled with unwanted, intrusive thoughts and compulsions that kept me from fully being the man I wanted to be. When my sins became public in 2006, I readily resigned, confessed, repented, and submitted to church authority. My goal was to grow in sanctification.

Since that time, I’ve become even more convinced that we can do everything Christ wants in our lives if we’ll take responsibility to pursue him at any cost. In my case, it’s been costly, but my prayers have been and are being answered.

So why do we do the things we do? As committed Christians, we hope that all of our actions, attitudes, thoughts, and words are a reflection of Christ’s lordship in our lives. But we human beings are growing and developing, knowing that we’ll only be perfected one the day when we see Jesus face-to-face. But in the meantime, as Paul said, we have opportunity to renew our minds.

Renewing our minds involves neuroplasticity, which is the ability of our brains to structurally change. I think this is the dynamic Paul addressed when he told us to think on certain things (Philippians 4:8), to renew our minds (Romans 12:2), and to develop the mind of Christ (Philippians 2:5). In other words, we must overcome the natural tendency in our minds that motivates behaviors that are not congruent with our Christian call (Romans 7:14-25, Galatians 5:19, 2 Corinthians 12:7).

For over 2,000 years, Bible scholars have struggled with Paul’s use of the Greek word “sarx” in his writings. This Greek word has been traditionally translated into English as “flesh,” and in some newer translations the “old sin nature.” Both of these translations are, of course, accurate and helpful. But now, with our developing understanding of how brain physiology impacts our lives, the word “sarx” takes on a new depth of meaning.

In Romans 8, Paul exhorts us to be dominated by the Holy Spirit as opposed to our “flesh” or “old sin nature.” Due to advances in neural science, we now understand how biblical references to our minds can improve our brains, and thus transform our lives. Our brains are repositories of natural thinking, survival instincts, unforgiveness, trauma, and fear. They physically store the portion of our lives that we Christians want to crucify in order to live a stronger Christian life. Our minds, our brains, can be rewired so our lives can be transformed. When Christ fills us with his life by his Word and Spirit, our old sin nature and our new nature in Christ conflict. But the potential for transformation is the reality that the Bible encourages, and now we are beginning to understand how that works.

Could it be that Paul meant EXACTLY what he wrote, and that we can, in fact, be transformed in every area of our lives by the renewing of our minds? I’ll write more about this in the future and explain the renewal Christ has given me.

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Black Lives Matter?

Several years ago, I participated in a Clinton Foundation meeting in New York. During the meeting, I sat by a woman from the United Nations assigned to the genocide issue in Darfur. At that time hundreds of thousands of blacks were being killed or displaced in southern Sudan, but those trying to relieve the suffering could not get significant media attention. This diplomat asked me why she was having such a hard time getting people to care about the suffering people of Darfur. I told her that in our Christian faith everyone is equally important, but in this fallen world, some matter more than others. As our conversation continued, I told her that the people of southern Sudan did not matter to most people in the current geo-political dynamic. Genocide in that region has continued to this day with little attention. It would appear that these black lives don’t matter much.

Ebola broke out in West Africa in 2013. I learned about it on my BBC app, and when I mentioned it to our congregation, few had heard about it. Why? Because it was not a major story in the American media until white Americans who were providing medical care to African victims were infected.

Here in America, blacks kill thousands of black people every year. I have never heard their names, but I do know the names of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, and Freddie Gray. Why? Because they have become symbols for a specific, popular cause. Symbols are important. Every cause has symbols that move the cause forward.

We just saw a perfect example of this with the dentist who went to Africa to shoot a trophy lion and is now known world-wide as a symbol of every malicious animal killer on the planet. He is a symbol now. If he tries to prove he was hunting legally, he will sound absurd. In the eyes of the general public, the factual details of his hunt are irrelevant now. He has become the poster child of a cause.

The same idea is evident with the “Black Lives Matter” symbols. Some care about the nefarious character, disrespectful attitudes, or previous offenses of those who have been killed, believing their errors mitigate, or even justify, their deaths. But once people become symbols, those facts no longer inform the primary public message.

The “Black Lives Matter” movement is highlighting the issue that abuse by authorities, especially white authorities, against African-Americans continues. This would explain why the thousands killed by black on black violence don’t seem to matter as much. That strikes me as unfair because all black lives matter, not just the ones that are lost at the hands of authorities. The black deaths, which occur at the hands of other blacks, are just as important. But, because they are not illustrative of the issue being highlighted by the media and the activists, they seem to not matter as much. Black on black victims are not symbols of a popular cause, so to talk about them in the same sentence as Freddie Gray seems unrelated.

Because black on black murders are virtually ignored by activists, the issue here might NOT be that “Black Lives Matter,” but maybe that racism matters. Or since uniformed officers who take black lives are the newsmakers, maybe it’s NOT that “Black Lives Matter,” but that abuse of government power matters. Based on media coverage and speeches given by the more prominent African-American leaders, black lives lost at the hands of the white police officers matter the most.

Maybe this is why the press wanted George Zimmerman to be white. That’s better imagery. It illustrates a political point better if he is white. The media reluctantly admitted he was half-Hispanic because George Zimmerman kept identifying himself as Hispanic. But even after his personal racial identification was made public, the media still often referred to him as white. If he was Hispanic, it might not have illustrated the political point as well.

Some might argue that the “Black Lives Matter” movement makes racism become the lens through which we see everything. Could there be a reason why George Zimmerman needed to be white and not Hispanic, and that President Obama is not half-white, half-black, or mixed race, but black? The symbolic value is increased when he’s our first black president, no doubt.

Probably the best current illustration of this complex issue is the highly publicized Rolling Stone feature article about the sexual assaults at the University of Virginia. Those assaults drew global attention until someone tried to find anyone who had been assaulted. There were none. What was reported didn’t happen. Several women’s organizations came out after the article was exposed as fraudulent and said that the fact that the sexual assaults did not happen is irrelevant. What was relevant to them was that the story brought public attention to their cause.

Causes are often birthed as a result of injustices. Wrongs need to be made right. But they must be based in truth so we can move forward with clarity to find solutions. If the issue is really that black lives matter, then black lives need to matter, even in the black community. But if the subject is really racism or the abuse of power by the authorities, then those are the issues we all should be correcting.
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Others are interested in your response and I appreciate your feedback. Please ensure that your comments are are informed and contribute constructively. After reading the blog your thoughts are certainly welcome, and I read all of them. But they will only be published if they are helpful to the discussion. At times, after reading a comment, I go back and correct or improve the blog. Thank you.

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Let Them Eat Cake

Freedom of religion is a valued tenet of American life. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits the government from making any law respecting an establishment of religion or impeding the free exercise of religion.

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled to legalize same-sex marriage, which caused many Christians to fear their first amendment protections were eroding. Following this ruling, two Christian bakery owners refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. They believed they were demonstrating their personal convictions and their faithfulness to the Scriptures. Another situation has been in the news where one Christian owner of a flower shop refused to provide flowers for a same-sex wedding on the basis of their religious convictions. Though the vast majority of Christian business owners serve the general public without hesitation, conservative Christian pundits have praised the few who have denied service to same-sex couples saying they are standing for their faith. But are they?

As I’ve participated in missions work around the world, I’ve stayed in hotels and eaten at restaurants owned by Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, and a long list of other faiths. In the United States, I’ve often stayed in Marriott chain hotels, which are owned by Mormons. The gracious hospitality these establishments showed me did not indicate to me that they endorsed my Evangelical Christian faith. It meant they recognized me as a customer and treated me courteously and humanely. I appreciated it. Their willingness to trade with me earned them income and provided me the things I needed to fulfill my Christian calling. If they adopted the ideology of only doing business with those who believe and practice their same convictions, we Bible-believing Christians would be out in the cold and hungry, having been discriminated against because of our faith.

So let’s take this ideology to its logical conclusion. If we Bible-believing business owners refuse to serve those with whom we disagree or who violate our Christian convictions, we will run into a problem. Jesus taught that anyone who marries a divorced person is committing adultery (Paul gives us limited exceptions). So should Christian florists avoid selling flowers to those who are celebrating their second, third, or fourth Christian wedding? The Bible teaches that we should not forsake the gathering of ourselves together. So should a Christian bakery refuse to provide pies and cakes to a family that does not attend church? And the Bible is very clear about the necessity of praying without ceasing. Does this mean we should refuse to do business with people who do not have a consistent prayer life?

Of course these examples sound absurd. But they are no more absurd than a business owner refusing to serve someone in the public under the guise that the customer violates their core religious beliefs. Where do we draw the line? Just with same-sex couples? Or with those who don’t participate in our denomination? Or with those who are in our denomination but don’t practice their faith the way we think they should? With this way of thinking, a devout Catholic car salesman wouldn’t sell to a Protestant, a good Baptist would refuse to rent a room to a Church of Christ member, and the Dalai Lama would starve to death trying to travel in Europe, America, or the Middle East.

Religious leaders mislead Christians when they state Christians are being denied religious liberty when the businesses and corporations they established for the purpose of serving the public, are, in fact, required by law to serve the public. Serving the public is simply serving the public.

Nothing in the recent Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage requires us as individuals or churches to attend, support, endorse, or perform same-sex marriages. Actually, the Supreme Court decision articulates that this decision must never be construed in any way to restrict religious worship or expression. But just as Muslim, Buddhist, and Hindu hotel owners rent me a room and provide me meals while I am in their cities for Christian meetings, so should Christians who own public business serve the public, without passing judgment on their customers’ personal choices. This practice does not violate our Christian faith.

How do we know? Because of the way Jesus responded to sinners. Just one of many New Testament examples is in Matthew 9:10-11 which reminds us, “Later, Matthew invited Jesus and his disciples to his home as dinner guests, along with many tax collectors and other disreputable sinners. But when the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher [Jesus] eat with such scum.’” Another would be when Jesus fed the multitudes, he did not exclude any particular sinners. Certainly Christ had no problem at all serving the general public, even sinners. He did that very thing on the cross.

I am confident the Christian owners of bakeries and flower shops are well aware that it is not their self-righteousness that saves them, but Christ’s righteousness freely given to them by God’s grace. It might be wise for all of us who are enjoying the grace Christ has given us to extend that same grace to others. We might even go so far as to let them eat cake and enjoy some flowers too.
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Others are interested in your response and I appreciate your feedback. Please ensure that your comments are are informed and contribute constructively. Your thoughts after reading the blog are certainly welcome, and I read all of them, but they will only be published if they are helpful to the discussion. At times, after reading a comment, I go back and correct or improve the blog. Thank you.

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