Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Non-Conformist Conformity

I am currently reading a book by Gordon MacDonald entitled, Ordering Your Private World. Over the next few weeks, I am going to reflect on what I believe is the key statement in the book:

"I believe that one of the great battlegrounds of our age is the private world of the individual."

I think that this is a significant observation. Yet I do not think many of us realize it. The Adversary's tactic is one of diversion: placing the scene of the battle where it truly is not. MacDonald talks about sinkholes in our inner lives, which can give way when we accumulate more and more on the surface. It reminded me of my Dad and his garage.

My Dad has a garage behind his house that began to crack and lean. The ground had begun to wash away beneath it. At one point you could actually crawl beneath the garage. I will tell you what Dad didn't do. He didn't repaint it. He didn't try to restructure it to where it looked level. He hired someone to straighten the building, repair the foundation and fill in the gaps.

How easy it is to miss what lies underneath has been slowing eroding and washing away. After all, it is what is beneath the surface that no one notices. In fact, it can be ignored for a large amount of time without any apparent consequence. They fill the garage full of nice cars. They paint it and decorate it and keep accumulating more things in it. Cracks can be merely filled in and painted over to where they are out of sight. It isn't until the something breaks or collapses that you realize how serious a problem there is. The ignored inner life simply cannot withstand.

I have observed that this is the culture in which we live. Our culture prizes the accumulation of success and the symbols of success, such as the fancy cars, the big houses, the designer clothes, and things of this nature. This focus on externals leaves a gaping hole that can often collapse under stress. In fact, I remember reading an article that stated that stress is the number one killer in America. According to this article, 70-80% of all illnesses in medical practice are either caused by or made worse by stress.

I believe that people in general recognize that there is a void in their lives. I have observed that things of a "spiritual" nature have become very popular in the last couple of decades. People have consumed movies, books, items to wear, workshops, and a host of other things of a spiritual nature out of a hunger for something many of them cannot articulate. New Age bookstores and Buddhism have become attractive to many westerners.

One of the things I found strange is that when unbelievers began to crave something spiritual and something transcendent, they didn't go to church. After seeing the wave of books, workshops and classes on spiritual formation in Christian circles in the last five years, I began to understand why. Even believers were craving something deeper than their surface Christian veneer. The emptiness of accumulating more must have plagued Christians, their churches, and their ministers along with the unbelievers around them. Building mega-churches, marketing style ministry, multiple programs and services, the drive and pride of tangible results, and the pressure of the expectation of the minister as C.E.O. produced a large gaping hole beneath the surface of many ministers, churches, and ministries. Many ministers and church leaders were burning out and suffering stress related illnesses just like the unbelievers in the world around them. Marriages in churches were seeing the same divorce rates as the unbelievers in the neighborhoods around them. People in the church were suffering from the same stress related illnesses as people out of the church. Is it any wonder why seekers didn't go to churches? Many churches did not look a whole lot different that what they were trying to escape from, only it was in Christian dress. The veneer was different, but underneath, it seemed to be the same.

No wonder Paul said, "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind" (Rom 12:2). What that means for me is that I need to be transformed inwardly. I need to order my inner self in such a way that I will exert influence on the world around me and not the other way around. I need to spend time on my inner self with God. I like Eugene Peterson's Paraphrase of Romans 12:2 in The Message: "Don't become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You'll be changed from the inside out."

"The inside out." What does that mean? It has been much easier for me to deal with the outer world. After all, it is what is most visible and measurable. It consists of my work, possessions, accomplishments, and things such as these. It is what is easy to measure and evaluate. But my inner self…. Well, I was not even quite sure what that means. MacDonald says that this is where "choices and values can be determined, where solitude and reflection might be pursued…a place for conducting worship and confession, a quiet spot where the moral and spiritual pollution of the times need not penetrate."

"Need not penetrate"…that is instructive for me. There should be a place that the world cannot touch. This is a place unaffected by the external circumstances and influences of the world. It is a place that is the source of my life: My directions. My aspirations. My decisions. My thoughts. All of these flow from this place within. Painting over the cracks that form from a hollow inner life will only promote the growth of that hollowness. If it is empty, nothing will flow from within. This is what needs to be transformed rather than conformed. This is the most important part of my life that I need to tend to. This is the place from where true life flows.

Perhaps this is what Proverbs 4:23 is all about: "Watch over your heart with all diligence, for from it flow the springs of life."

For me, the key word in this proverb is diligence. I need to beware of the barrenness of a busy life. I need to beware of getting caught up in external things only. I need to ensure that my inner spring is not polluted. The true living water originates with God. As long as the spring is okay, then everything is truly in order. Everything is "okay," regardless of external circumstances. I will not be obsessed over the externals. I will not neglect what is truly important. I will not let the world squeeze me into its mold without me being aware of it.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Practical Apologetics

I remember sitting in a Christian evidences class at Harding University with Ed Myers talking about apologetics. After talking about the evidences for the authenticity of the Bible and the existence of God, he concluded with this statement. "Love is the strongest apologetic of all."

His point is well taken. When I reflect on the truth of that statement, I am struck by the fact that I know of no unbeliever who was won mainly by a well-reasoned argument. I only know of two people out of countless others for whom apologetics removed obstacles to their faith. It didn't cause their faith, just removed obstacles to it.

When I was a new Christian, I can remember getting into religious arguments with relatives and friends and doing nothing more than alienating them or turning them off from any further dialogue we might have had. What was my problem? It still hadn't sunk in what the greatest thing was. "The greatest of these is love" (1 Cor 13:7), wrote the Apostle Paul. "Whoever loves a brother or sister lives in the light" (2 Jn 2:10), said the Apostle John. "By this (love) will all men know that you are my disciples" (John 13:35), said our Lord Jesus Christ. Living in the light means living in love. Living in love is how unbelievers will see the light of God.

I recently read an account of a problem in many ivy-league schools. These were among some of the intellectually brightest in an upcoming generation. Many of these students were poised to become the next policy makers and shape the direction of the country in years to come. Part of their training involved courses in ethics. As with many other classes, many of these students received the highest marks. One of these students recounts the repeated character problems in many of her fellow students. While they could effectively and intelligently discuss ethical dilemmas to the point of teaching classes on the subject, they often had more character flaws than the blue-collar workers that barely had a high school education in the neighborhoods around the school. Sexual impropriety, lying, cheating, and deception were common practice among many of these students. Yet they all had excellent grades in their ethics courses. Many of these would go on to become doctors, lawyers, judges and politicians. Ethics had become nothing more than an interesting intellectual subject. However, it did little to change their life. If anything, it provided a way to dodge the inconsistencies in their life.

The same thing can happen in my spiritual life. I can get advanced degrees in theology and expound its implications from a sound, intellectual vantage point. I can defend the authority and authenticity of the scriptures with a sound academic method. While it is important to have intellectual honesty and soundness, there is much more to the faith than this. Knowing is every bit a relational exercise as it is an intellectual one. When Jesus prayed in John 17:3, he affirmed, "…this is eternal life, that they might know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent." The goal is not for me merely to know scripture, but to know God. The goal is not for me to merely know about God, but to know God. John wrote, "God is Love" (1 Jn 4:8). Since God is love, I am to love (1 Jn 4:7). Knowing God means walking and living in his presence in such a way that his character becomes my character. Since God is love, I am to love. In this way, I walk in the light of God that shines out in my life and draws people to God. To be sure, when others see my godly character, this by itself will not save them. Those who are lost need to hear the Gospel, which has the power of salvation to everyone who believes (Rom 1:16). However, that initial draw to the Gospel comes from seeing the light of God in my life.

Early Christians demonstrated this in their lives. Most were not as intellectually sophisticated as their pagan counterparts. In spite of this fact, Christianity took hold of the world. God worked in the lives of everyone that abandoned themselves to him through a change of character not merely through intellectual arguments. This new freedom to love others without fear of loss made such an impact, that in a short period of time the Gospel had gone out to Rome, Asia, Africa, Britain, and India.

The mighty power of God displayed in the beauty of love could not be contained. Here is a quotation from the pagan emperor Julian that sheds a little light on the outsider's perspective of Christianity.

“Atheism (i.e. Christian faith) has been specially advanced through the loving service rendered to strangers, and through care for the burial of the dead. It is a scandal that there is not a single Jew who is a beggar, and that the godless Galileans care not only for their own poor but for ours as well; while those who belong to us look in vain for the help we should render to them.” -Julian 332-63

Pagans referred to Christianity as atheism because they did not worship the pantheon of gods and did not worship an image. Notice how a Roman, with all of his sophistication views the cause for the spread of Christianity. It wasn't through the mighty intellect of all those Christians, but through their simple, yet powerful acts of God's love.

Truly, love is the greatest apologetic. Through it, people experience something of God. These early Christians have left an example and challenge. Pour as much energy into living out the character of God as in intellectual prowess. Perhaps I need to put more energy into the former than the latter. Instead of "How can I win this argument?" the question for me should be, "How can I represent God and his interests to these people?"

None if this is new to me. It likely may not be new to you. I have no problem expounding and explaining the importance of all of this. In years past, I made good comments concerning these issues in some of the Bible classes I was in. As early as my teen years, I did devotionals and sermonettes on them. The same was true of many of my Christian friends. However, like those Ivy League students, we talked more than we walked. We knew our scriptures well. We had been indoctrinated well, but not educated well. The knowledge we had was not the same as the transformation that we were supposed to have had. I wonder if people saw God in us, or merely a religious argument. There lies the challenge.