Feb 4 2011

What it means to be blessed

I grew up in a church who read from the Gospels each week (along with a passage from the Epistles, and the Old Testament). Sermons were sometimes based on the Epistles, but I seem to recall more coming from the Gospels. For one thing, the Gospels were stories, and even children could understand most of them. Secondly, I suspect that a lot of the impact came from the fact that the Gospels contained the words of Jesus, not simply words about Jesus.

I don’t recall any sermons having the message that as Christians, our lives would be a bed of roses. It’s actually hard to come up with this kind of belief if you actually read the Gospels. Jesus actually promises us quite a bit of trouble, when you come right down to it. And, as he lived as one of us for 30-plus years, and ended up being tortured and killed, I think he understood what he was talking about.

One of Jesus’ most famous sermons is the Sermon on the Mount, recorded in Matthew chapter 5. In a section known as the beatitudes, or the “blesseds,” Jesus says,

3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5 Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
7 Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
8 Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

While some of the traits Jesus mentions are positive, such as being pure in heart, merciful and being a peacemaker, I don’t believe Jesus is saying that all of these are things to shoot for. Rather, he seems to be pointing out people who were personally suffering, or who were sacrificing their own good for the good of others. He did not meant that it is good to mourn or to be persecuted—in fact, the Lord’s Prayer teaches us to pray to be delivered from evil, which these things certainly are. While the beatitudes are promises of hope and the coming Kingdom, Jesus knew that even though the Kingdom of God was at hand (Matt. 3:2), for the present time there will be suffering.

The Kingdom of God—the rule of God—has been described as “already but not yet.” It is “at hand” or “within reach,” but yet Jesus asks us to pray that the Kingdom of God would come to “Earth as it is in Heaven.” Of course, when I was a child, this was beyond me, but yet I understood that God was in control in spite of suffering—and that at some future point, everything would be set right. Those who mourn would be comforted, and the poor in spirit would inherit Heaven. In other words, the future would more than compensate for the present.

As a parent, I understand this now, as I watched my children fall when learning to ride a bike and take medicine that was hard to swallow. It is a matter of perspective. We need to learn to see beyond the present into the future, trusting that from God’s point of view, it all works out to our good.

At times there is healing and prosperity, and at times there is suffering and mourning. God sent the Comforter because we would need comforting, and he sent Jesus to bring hope and salvation in the midst of it all. Those of us who know God understand this hope.

That’s what it really means to be blessed.

1.       When is the last time you heard a sermon from the Gospels?
2.       How have you experienced the comfort of the Holy Spirit?

Jan 17 2011

Good News for Anxious Christians

I am almost finished with Phillip Cary’s book, Good News for Anxious Christians—10 Practical Things You Don’t Have to Do. When my brother-in-law gave it to me at Christmas, he remarked that it seemed like a good companion to my book, and he was absolutely right. For example, on the first page of the preface, Cary writes:

Some folks may find it odd when I say Christians need the gospel, but this is something I firmly believe. I don’t think you just accept Christ once in life, and then move on to figure out how to make real changes in your life that transform you. It’s hearing the gospel of Christ and receiving him in faith, over and over again, that makes the real transformation in our lives. We become new people in Christ by faith alone, not by our good works or efforts or even our attempts to let God work in our lives.

Good stuff.

Cary teaches philosophy at Eastern University, where he has dealt with countless students plagued by various teachings prevalent in today’s evangelical church that are meant to provide practical ways to transform our lives, but as he says, “They’re ideas that promise practical transformation, but in real life they mainly have the effect of making people anxious, not to mention encouraging self-deception, undermining their sense of moral responsibility, and weakening their faith in Christ.” (Cary also has a few courses available at The Teaching Company, which I highly recommend.)

I think Cary’s background in philosophy—and especially the history of philosophy and religious thought—gives him a unique perspective from which to view the present. He  paints a very clear picture of the contemporary evangelical church, emphasizing first that it is a contemporary phenomenon—the thinking behind many of the ideas he discusses would have been completely foreign a couple of generations ago.

While he deals with ten specific “things you don’t have to do,” there are three key themes that appear. First is the trend toward an individualistic spirituality (something about which I’ve blogged about in the past). Next is the related theme of looking inside oneself to find God.

The third theme—which I found most interesting—is the consumerist aspect of the contemporary evangelical church. I’ve heard a lot of about “consumer Christians” over the years, but nothing with the depth that Cary presents. He describes the various characteristics of consumerism and shows how it perverts teaching and evangelism in the church, hiding the gospel and creating anxiety-ridden Christians.

It occurred to me as I was reading, that the consumerist approach to church is actually necessitated by the first 2 themes. If Christians turn individualist and self-centered, they no longer have a need for the church. Therefore, the pastors need to present their church as a commodity the consumer needs, in order to get them coming to church. More on this in a future post.

I already liked Cary from his Great Courses series, but really appreciated his thinking in this book.  I plan to write 2 or 3 follow up posts dealing with a few things in more detail, mainly for my own edification, but also to solicit some thoughts from others.

Jan 3 2011

The Gospel Uncensored Study Guide now available!

The Gospel Uncensored Study Guide is designed for individual use, or as a 10-week small group study, and it’s available as a free PDF file book, available at TheGospelUncensored.com.

The full-page format is formatted for standard 8.5 x 11 paper. The small format file is formatted as 5.5 x 8.5, which is more easily viewed on smart phones or e-readers. You can either click on the links below to view the files, or right-click on the links and choose “save as” or “save link as” to save the file to your computer.

I am going to try to have real e-book format documents up in the next few days, once I work out a few bugs. For now, you can get the pdf files here:

The Gospel Uncensored Study Guide – small format

The Gospel Uncensored Study Guide – full page format

Dec 23 2010

One Gospel — it’s what Christmas is all about

From a Reformation Day sermon, as posted by Paul McCain:

The different ways people read God’s Word are not merely variations on a theme but radically different Gospels.  The Reformation of Luther is not about competing interpretations but about the one Gospel which is true and others which are false.  If you read St. Paul’s letters, you hear him warn the people against departing from the truth that He delivered to them.  He was not offering one version of the truth but the only truth that saves — the truth of Jesus Christ. We face exactly the same challenge today.

Christianity is not the domain of differing but equally true ideas about God.  Christianity is not some umbrella religion of many different truths that all claim to be right.  Christianity is about the one, true Gospel that has the power to forgive, save, and give eternal life.  The other gospels are false gospels that are powerless to do anything for you.  Luther’s battle was not with a pope or a council but with a false gospel which had robbed the Church of the Word that does what it says, delivers what it promises, and bestows what it speaks.

Merry Christmas!