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Pious People Popping Platitude Pills

Pious People Popping Platitude Pills

Tacky title, eh? I don’t apologize. I had fun constructing it.

The other day someone asked me whether there were any scriptures I liked to go to when I was having problems. I gave the answer immediately and then explained, but I’m going to do the opposite here. I’m going to explain and then tell you the most helpful passage of scripture for me when life varies from irritating to frightening.

Well, I lied. I’ll give you part of the answer. There aren’t any “nice” passages of scripture that I use to give me comfort. In fact, when people quote those at me, I get annoyed. I already know them. If they were going to help me, they would have already.

What good does it do me to be reminded that God owns the cattle on a thousand hills? Send some of those annoying animals to market and pass the money on to me!

What good does it do me to be reminded that God heals all my diseases when I have a headache and stuffy head and can’t concentrate on my work? Heal my disease, and do it now!

Besides, it’s likely I can give you sound exegetical arguments for why those passages don’t apply to my situation.

It isn’t that I don’t believe in prayer, or God’s healing, or God’s provision. I can cite plenty of examples.

Counterexamples, too.

My father was healed in a manner I regard as miraculous. One day in 1971 he was told he would never work again, and would be dead in 10 years. Two weeks later, after he called for the elders of the church and they anointed him with oil and prayer, he was back at work, and was the sole physician for a 54 bed hospital, on call 24/7 for a year. He lived another 35+ years.

Then there was the time when a friend of his had a heart attack. Despite his prayers and his best efforts as a physician, he was unable to revive and stabilize the man. It was the longest and hardest he had ever worked on anyone. He didn’t want to give in. But the man still died.

A friend asked me to pray with him for $1500 to pay his mortgage so he wouldn’t lose his house. I did so gladly. The next day $1500 arrived in his mailbox.

My thoughts? Where is my rent money for my mobile home? I’m honestly not resentful that people have bigger houses. (I do sin through jealousy and resentment about other things, but I like my mobile home.) But I was having a hard time coming up with the rent at the same time as, apparently in answer to my prayer, my friend got his mortgage payment.

I was asked to go on a mission trip to do some teaching. I’d just gotten back from a month overseas, and had nothing with which to pay for a trip. I flippantly said, well, the Lord has to provide, because I’m tapped out, but I’ll go of God provides. Within the week the trip was paid for. As I was preparing to leave I found that I had no spending money. I figured I’d survive. God had, after all, provided the cost of the trip. A friend drove up in my driveway and said, “You’re going to need some spending money on your trip.” He handed me two $100 bills.

No, no negative “balance” story this time.

Sometimes I’m just whining and crying, but sometimes God doesn’t make it easy. God doesn’t intend to. What I never appreciate is a platitude I memorized a long time ago.

Yes, a passage of scripture can be a platitude under the right set of circumstances.

In scripture, one can balance great promises of good things with times of trouble, times that are ordained by God. We do ourselves and everyone else a disservice by reading the nice stuff and skipping over the bad.

In Sunday school, we hear the story of Peter being freed from prison (Acts 12:3ff). We rarely mention that this comes right after James is beheaded (Acts 12:1-2). We like Samuel and Kings and the message that if we do what is right, God will bless, but we’re less happy with Job, in which a person identified as righteous suffers substantially. Or we have Ecclesiastes 9:11 which seems to tell us that our efforts don’t matter, and instead of proposing an alternative of God’s will, says “time and chance happens to them all” (Ecclesiastes 9:11).

In fact, to some extent we are promised trouble, particularly persecution. Perhaps when life is going too well we should ask ourselves whether we are doing what we should!

The problem is one I’ve observed regarding Hallmark movies. The boy doesn’t always get the girl (or the girl the boy), your parents don’t always reconcile at the last minute, your business isn’t always rescued from bankruptcy by a helpful crusader, and no, your child doesn’t always get better. It’s nice to have a movie that says so, but it’s not always our experience.

I remember standing at Disney and listening to them singing about wishes coming true. I was standing there crying while everyone laughed, because I knew that my wish was not coming true. I was fighting that knowledge, but it was still there. My son was not going to be staying with us; he’d be going on to glory. I hated that song in that moment.

In our dealings with others, we need to be prepared to recognize the nature of life and not to say or to imply that God will always solve every problem immediately and according to our preferences.

So what do I find is the most encouraging passage?

Job 38.

Yes, that one.

You see, I know that I’m darkening counsel by words without knowledge. I know that I’m pretty ignorant. I know that God knows much more.

Infinitely more.

But what it also tells me is that while I’m thinking I’m alone, while I’m thinking there is nothing left, God is there. God doesn’t promise that you will not have troubles, but God does promise to be there. I can get that.

God’s promises are quite valuable, but like everything else they need to be taken in context—in the context of life, in the context of the passage of scripture, and in the context of the overall story.

I have two friends who suffer from health issues that many of us would consider overwhelming. Both of them, to the contrary, see God working through their situation. Their prayer is not for healing, but for God to use them in the situation they’re in. I would imagine they would be happy if God decided to heal them at some point, but that is not their focus in life.

They have the promise that God will be with them no matter what the problem.

That is a message I can truly appreciate and appropriate.

(Featured image credit:

Energion Google Hangout on Air Tonight – Creation and Christianity

Energion Google Hangout on Air Tonight – Creation and Christianity

creation-5Tonight at 7:00 pm central time for the weekly Energion Google Hangout on Air I’ll be moderating a panel of four authors. You can find the event information on our Google+ page.

The participants are:

This event is not a debate about creation and evolution. While I vary the content from hangout to hangout, I avoid outright debates. Each of these authors accepts the theory of evolution but also believes that God is the creator. Dr. Herold Weiss started the series, which also includes Creation: The Christian Doctrine by Dr. Edward W. H. Vick, who is unavailable for this panel. What I have asked them to do for this panel is talk about how their beliefs about creation impact the way the read scripture, teach, worship, and live.

The YouTube embed to view the event is below. If you want to ask questions of the panel using the Q&A App, you’ll need to sign into Google+. There should be a link on the YouTube viewer at the time the event starts for you to do so.


Hearing the Word: Testing the Claim

Hearing the Word: Testing the Claim

1893729389I’ve had a rather intense week and haven’t done any blogging, so as I use the extra hour I got as we switched to standard time, I’m going to talk about Sunday School.

Last week we discussed considerations of hearing. I’m going to include an extract below, with the subheading “Testing the Claim” from that chapter in my book When People Speak for God. But first, I’m going to include some additional comments.

One of the things that I hear from non-charismatic evangelicals about charismatics is that we tend to get blown about by the “winds” of the various “words from the Lord” that we receive, either directly or through other people. There is a certain validity to this criticism. It’s very easy to claim that God told you something, especially when God told you that someone else should do what you want them to do. It’s amazing how many sides God is on! So it’s important to remind charismatics (and I count myself as one) that we need to test everything. Not everything—in fact, I would suggest very little—of what people claim is coming from God actually does.

Evangelical Christians, however, have a similar problem with various wild interpretations of scripture. People are people, no matter how they claim to get their authority. So someone can claim to have found a new interpretation of scripture and make every bit as large of changes in the church as someone who claims to have heard from the Lord. This is what I emphasize in my book and in my class: Every claim of divine authority needs to be corporately and individually tested. It doesn’t matter if it’s an announcement that one has heard directly from God or a claim that one has found the one true meaning of a passage of scripture. Test it. In my book I say that the last person who must hear from God is you. None of these sources relieve you personally or your congregation corporately from the search for truth.

Liberals may be thinking that they are left out of this. (I frequently use charismatic-liberal-evangelical as a sort of triangle. Like any abbreviation it misses a lot, but it can be helpful.) I think the liberal tendency is to find new ideas by reason and then manipulate people by being the most reasonable person in the room.  I have nothing against reason. In fact, I call myself a liberal charismatic. I don’t use that label because I hate labels and want to be confusing, but because first, I believe that God is still speaking, as much as He ever spoke and I believe in testing, and testing involves reason. I think we seek God’s Word whenever we search for truth in whatever field. The physicist studying the laws of the universe using his or her mind and the best tools of science is studying God’s Word. So I’m liberal in the sense that while I believe God is speaking, I also believe that human reason is a way to discover truth and is always involved in testing claims. (I comment further on these labels here.)

So no matter where you start, test any claim to truth. Here’s the extract:

I will discuss how one tests such things in more detail later, but there are some key things to look at immediately. It is quite possible for a sincere person to use the claim that God has spoken manipulatively. One warning sign is when someone has argued for a particular course of action and consistently been losing the argument, and then suddenly receives a word from God that they were absolutely right all along, and that the only way the church can receive a blessing is if they will do as that person desires. But there are some other warning signs:

The proposed course of action violates ethical or moral

You might be amazed at how frequently this occurs, and how easy it is to rationalize immoral behavior when someone is forcefully claiming that God has ordered it. Some people have claimed that God sanctioned adultery for them on some basis. I know of cases in which someone decided that God had ordered them to spend their rent money on a mission trip, and not pay their rent. If done without the permission of their landlord, that is at least unethical, and should cause one to consider carefully whether God is speaking. Don’t be led into immoral or unethical actions by a voice.

✔ “God’s words” come to a person in the course of debate.

God’s command should generally be complete and straightforward, and shouldn’t require amendment. If “God” keeps coming up with new arguments over the course of the debate, just as an ordinary person would, think again.

✔ “God’s words” are presented in a divisive way, or introduce an element of divisiveness.

Make no mistake, God’s words through prophets do produce negative reactions in those who do not want to obey God. Where divisiveness comes into the discussion is something that also requires discernment and testing. We would not want to reject God’s word on the basis that it made the devil angry! “Words from the Lord” that involve gossip, criticism, a judgmental spirit,
or cruelty should be rejected.

✔ The person who presents God’s word reacts angrily to having that word tested by others.

When someone is sure that God has spoken and others reject that word, it is appropriate for them to be grieved at that event, but they should welcome discernment and sincere testing, and they should be prepared to live with differences of opinion.

✔ “God’s words” deny established scriptural standards.

Continuing revelation should not reverse what God has already said. The Bible has been tested and accepted by the church, so if you reverse major principles of scriptures, you are likely off track. This doesn’t mean that interpretations cannot be corrected, but soundly interpreted scripture should be upheld.

How does one respond to a claim to speak for God? It depends on the particular circumstances. If you are in a church where testing is regularly practiced, you already have a path to follow. Hopefully this will end either with acceptance of the word, or a gracious—and I emphasize gracious—rejection with explanation and correction provided to the person who made the claim in the first place. If you cannot graciously respond, even when you reject the word, you likely need to examine yourself. Outside of that atmosphere, when I am not sure that what someone has claimed as a word from God actually is such a word, I will often choose to say simply, “God is going to have to tell me that,” or “That is not what I hear.” If you are not in a congregational setting where there is a commonality of beliefs, responding appropriately to a false word is not so easy. (pp. 87-89, emphasis added)

I would note that regarding my comment on “denying established scriptural standards” I do not mean that the church cannot change. What I mean is that one person’s word from the Lord can’t turn everything on its head. Acts 15 provides a sort of model, I think, for this kind of change. Changing through corporate discernment may be a much longer process, but until it seems “good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (Acts 15:28 NRSV) conversation needs to proceed.

Speaking for God: Inspiration, Authority, and Interpretation

Speaking for God: Inspiration, Authority, and Interpretation

1893729389In about a half an hour I will be leaving for church where I will teach a small Sunday School class. The class has chosen to go through my book When People Speak for God (wow!). I start my discussion in this book by looking at the human factor and the divine factor. It is not enough to claim that God has spoken. We also have to understand what it is that God has said.

This came up in a helpful e-mail exchange with a friend this week, in which I discussed certain views of certain Bible passages and whether these would be consistent with inerrancy. The discussion led me to wonder if I was ignoring the human factor in looking at others. The human factor is most directly involved in our interpretation. I don’t accept the term “biblical inerrancy” as it applies to me. What I do believe is that if we discern the message God has for us, that message is true, and we should act on it. I think it should be our goal to discern this message correctly. A true message ignored is of no value. A true message wrongly understood can be dangerous. We never get away from the need to apply our minds.

As I reread my own material, however, I was reminded of another distinction: inspiration and authority. Just because something is inspired doesn’t mean it’s necessarily authoritative for any particular person, congregation, or for the whole church. I may hear the voice of God leading me to some action. My hearing does not obligate others. This idea could be helpful for those who believe in the continuation of the gift of prophecy in the church. I’ve been asked how words received by a modern prophet relate to the Bible. Ignoring the issue of whether the modern speaker is, in fact, speaking for God, his or her words would only have authority of so discerned and accepted by the broader body, i.e. if they became part of the canon of scripture for the whole church.

I do not mean that the church would make the words authoritative. Rather, the church would recognize that the words were authoritative, and the authority would become active in that way. “Inspired” does not mean “authoritative,” and “authoritative” in one place does not mean authoritative in another place or everywhere.

I’m going to add an extract here that fleshes out some of the difference between inspiration and authority. I’m not saying precisely the same thing, but I am influence by this text. (The author is Edward W. H. Vick, and I publish the book, From Inspiration to Understanding.)

(8) A further category mistake is to relate the notion of the authority of the Bible to the process whereby the books came to be written. The writer was inspired. So the writing has authority. No! These words do not have authority because, in  some manner, they issued out of a process of inspiration. They may have done so. That is a problem to be settled on the basis of appeal to the available evidence. But if they did they do not have authority because they did. They have authority because they are relevant, living words, because something happens of importance when they are read and interpreted. The event of revelation happens. These words provide the means. They are the vehicle of that happening. These words are caught up in the dynamic of God’s revelation. This means that inspiration is a less adequate and less important concept than revelation.

Since they are not the only writings to function in this way, they are unique in that they are the only words which have a unique historical connection with the original Christ-event, with the coming of Christian faith into the world. They are for this reason primary. They are the words which have in the history of the church proved to be the means for God’s continuing revelation of himself. The church asserts the historical givenness of these and not other words. It also asserts the contemporaneity of the revelation of God these words mediate. ‘The Spirit breathes upon the word and brings the truth to sight.’ God revealed himself. God reveals himself.

(Vick, From Inspiration to Understanding, p. 81)

I think I place more emphasis on the recognition of the words by the church and less on their functioning. This is because I believe all inspired words will function, in their proper sphere, in similar ways. The question is whether a particular text was meant for the Church, a church, a small group, or a person, and whether it was meant for a moment in time or to have broader application.

So I’m distinguishing inspiration, authority, and interpretation/application (hermeneutics). How important is the distinction?


Careful Where You Point Your Bible

Careful Where You Point Your Bible

At the beginning of the month I wrote a post about pointing texts at yourself first. I think it’s important to do so both in order to avoid misinterpretation or unbalanced emphasis, but also because in communicating the message you will do better in expressing something that has convicted you first. The temptation, of course, is to major on the texts that don’t get under my own skin, but which tell other people what they need to change. But I think that’s a dangerous course of action.

Coincidentally, I received some e-mails shortly after I posted that. The person in question was not responding to my post, but rather to my position on Bible versions (he is KJV-Only) and on the creation/evolution controversy (he’s a young earth creationist). Though I do reserve the right to post e-mails that are sent to me, I’m going to leave this individual anonymous.

We went through one exchange of e-mails, i.e. he e-mailed me to tell me I was wrong, though providing nothing but his own statements to back that up, and then I responded to that e-mail. I mentioned that I would normally carry on a private correspondence on a topic such as this only through one exchange, but that I’d be delighted to carry on the discussion in public. That’s my policy when someone’s question isn’t personal or at least unique. I also gave a few references dealing with why I hold the positions I do, though again, these are all available through my various web sites.

Having engaged in all of several paragraphs of communication, he then quoted 2 Peter 3:3-7 at me (and I use the preposition deliberately) and extracted from it the following terms:

“there shall come … scoffers … willingly …ignorant” (I couldn’t say it any better.)

Now admittedly my views on creation and evolution are somewhat controversial, but being called “willingly ignorant” by a KJV-Only advocate is, shall we say, special.

And herewith ends another example of how not to communicate!

Point It at Yourself First

Point It at Yourself First

One recommendation I make for Bible study is simple: Look for what speaks to, and yes convicts, you first. It’s very easy to read the Bible and find all the things that other people ought—or ought not—to do. This results in our practice of having lists of “clean” sins and “dirty” sins.

Clean sins are the ones I’m personally tempted to. It’s just natural to fall for those temptations and I don’t really have to worry too much about them. For example, I’m overweight. I’m working on it, but I’m not a good example in that area. That’s my “clean” sin. Of course smoking, to which others are tempted but I’m not, is a “dirty” sin. It’s easy for me to condemn someone else for abusing their body by smoking when I have plenty of things to work on myself.

Of course, what I mean here by “clean” and “dirty” is the way we treat those sins, as though my sins are OK, but those of other people are horrible, not the actual nature of the sins, none of which are “clean.”

Today I read an excellent example of the right way to approach the application of a text of scripture Todd Wood is a creationist who teaches at Bryan College in Dayton, TN. I read his blog to get the perspective of an intelligent young age creationist who is also somewhat unusual in the exceptionally fair way he treats opponents.

He was looking at II Timothy 3:16-17, and decided to look at the broader context. He noted the phrase “having itching ears” and “They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.”

Now I’ve heard this verse any number of times, and generally teachers are prepared to point out the myths that other people believe, and explain how they believe that because of their itching ears. I’ve been the target of this, and I must confess I’ve done it myself.

Not a good plan! Not the right way to apply scripture!

I should look at myself first.

That’s what Todd did:

Now your average creationist reads that as a condemnation of evolution, right? That’s the myth what “itching ears want to hear,” or so we’ve been told.

But I’m not your average creationist, so I wondered what myth I’ve turned to instead of “sound doctrine.” I think the danger is ever present, or Paul wouldn’t have warned Timothy so sternly to avoid it. That means the warning is for everyone, especially for those who think they’ve got it all together doctrinally (like us creationists).


Now if you think my point is that finally a creationist looked at the possibility he might be getting his doctrinal positions out of order, you’re missing my point. Todd is providing us with an excellent example of how we should approach a scripture. I’m a theistic evolutionist. It’s easy for me to see the faults and failings of young age creationists.

In other words, the question to ask is what sort of myths am I going after? What do my itching ears want to hear? When you read this, ask what your itching ears want to hear.

I’m not arguing that we should be unwilling to consider that our doctrinal positions or our scriptural interpretations are right. In fact, after we’ve done our best to study out a position, we need to stand up for what we believe to be the truth. But we also need to constantly look at ourselves.

In addition to asking whether we’re believing myths, I think we need to ask whether we have placed some doctrinal position of our own in a place it doesn’t deserve, i.e. whether we have made an idol of some particular position. Have I made my position on origins, baptism, ecclesiology, education, or anything else more important than the good news of Jesus?

Amongst the things for which scripture is valuable presented in II Timothy 3:17, are reproof and correction. Let’s receive it for ourselves!