Message to SouthLake Christian Faculty and Staff

As we began faculty in-service last week at SouthLake Christian Academy, I addressed our teachers with an annual State of the School update and some words of encouragement and motivation. I commended their unity as a faculty and their commitment to teaching our students in ever changing circumstances, and also acknowledged the challenges they face as our operations are turned upside down in every conceivable way. I offered the following devotional thought and challenge.

Matthew 14 and John 6 tell the story of Jesus walking on water, but they tell it a bit differently. In Matthew’s account, Jesus walks on water through a storm, gets into the boat with his disciples, and “the winds ceased.” In John’s account, Jesus gets into the boat and “immediately the boat was at the land to which they were going. If you are a contemporary historiographer, this may appear as a contradiction. Some argue that the two writers are telling two different stories. For Matthew and John, however, I believe the gospel genre in which they were writing was use for theological rather than purely historical purposes. Matthew tells us when Jesus arrived, the waters calmed. John says that when Jesus arrived, they were carried across the waters; the voyage ended. Sometimes God intervenes to calm our waters and we keep on rowing. At other times he carries us through the waters, the voyage ends, and the difficulty is over. How God chooses to intervene is his choice by providence, and I believe, for our greater good.

In that light, I challenged our faculty and staff to shift their thinking in the following ways:

  1. Shift from likes to needs. Rather than think about operational changes as things we like or don’t like, conceive of them as things we need to continue live instruction as safely as possible for as long as possible.
  2. Shift from opinions to facts. We may all have opinions about school opening, about CDC recommendations, about the politics of wearing masks, etc. but those matter far less right now than science and data. Opinions matter, but facts are actionable.
  3. Shift from feelings to strategies. As conditions change, and inevitably they will, how we may feel about changes is less relevant than the strategies we implement to cope as well as possible with whatever comes our way.

While I would prefer that God simply carry us through this storm, it appears that we still have some rowing to do. So I will hope for calm waters, trust God’s providence, and pray for endurance to give every stroke of the paddle my best.

Biblical Interpretation Leadership Theology

Why Christian Education

Why Christian Education

[The following is a written summary of an address to the faculty of Westminster Catawba Christian School on August 5, 2019.]

At SouthLake Christian, we began a strategic planning process earlier this year to identify our main priorities as a school for the next chapter in our history. We spent a few months gathering data from our various constituents – teachers, students, parents, alumni, and members of the community – to clarify who we are and what next steps we should take, to select among all the good options the very best ones. Early and often, people identified two traits that characterize our school and must be preserved at all costs: our commitment to academic rigor and our identity as a Christian school. These conjoined twins represent the two main reasons our school was established and continues to exist, the reason parents hire us and pay us to do a job, the reason volunteers and donors give their time and money, and the reason that independent, public, and charter schools haven’t crowded us out. And yet, there are reasons for Christian education superior to those pragmatic considerations, important as they are. I propose that Christian education casts out fear[1], nourishes freedom, and tells a better story.

Bob Woodward’s 2018 book entitled Fear describes the inner workings of the White House with this phrase: “Real power is fear.” Machiavelli’s The Prince articulates a similar refrain: “It is better to be feared than loved.” Many leaders rise to power and maintain that power because they manage effectively to understand and articulate the underlying fears of their constituents. Some leaders maintain power by stoking that fear while promising to ameliorate it. These strategies work because fear plagues us all. It drives us to work and overwork, robs our sleep, wrecks our bodies, taints our relationships, and blinds us to life’s beauty. Fear. Cable news fuels it, social media feeds it, marketing firms monetize it. And the thing we have most to fear is fear itself. Yet we have a solution. Christians have always taught that the antidote to fear is love. The apostle John, for whom 4 books of the New Testament are named, writes that “God is love” and “perfect love casts out fear” and “greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for a friend.” (1 John 4.8, 1 John 4.17, and John 15.13 – NIV). The love that led Jesus to lay down his life for us lives in us. As we love each other and our students and their families, we cast out fear. As we teach that love, and acknowledge explicitly its source and power, we smother the fires scorching our society. Christian education literally makes the world a better place, God’s kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.

As we cast out fear, we nourish freedom. Years ago, I attended a conference of the American Academy of Religion, one session of which concerned academic freedom. The panel discussion was led by professors at various types of universities – state, private secular, and Christian. As they each described their context, something became blatantly obvious. Only Christian schools have any chance at true academic freedom! Public and secular private school teachers avoid religious conversations like the plague, by necessity. They can lose their jobs if they appear to advocate for any particular religious conviction. In the name of tolerance or open-mindedness or diversity, our society has pushed theological belief to the margins, treating nearly every other form of belief more amicably. A rather strange state of affairs now exists whereby religious belief, so important to so many, can barely be discussed by anyone in a secular classroom. And so, I ask, who is really free? The answer is YOU. You teach at a school that sees theological conviction not merely as a subject worthy of open discussion, but one foundational to all discussion because every belief of any kind begins with an unproven assumption. All learning requires faith. Your students attend a school where they can ask ANY question and get a straight answer. We can actually promote tolerance and open-mindedness and diversity not because these things are fashionable, but because they are beautiful, and good, and right, and true, and biblical. We have rich theological language by which to say that we should treat each other with respect and kindness because we are all created in God’s image, that we value people different from us because such is the Kingdom of God, that we seek community with people who do not look like us because heaven will be filled with people of “every tribe and tongue and nation” (Revelation 7.9 – ESV). We do not fear others because we love them. We love them because God first loved us. God’s love sets us free.

Christian education casts out fear, nourishes freedom, and tells a better story. This summer I spent part of a day with Scott Dillon, Head of School at Westminster Catawba, and we talked at length about the why of Christian education. What sets us apart from other academically rigorous schools? Why do parents pay us to educate their kids? What do we offer that is distinctive? To approach an answer to those questions, play a game with me. Imagine your school is not a Christian school. A student asks, why do I need to learn this math? You could answer, because you will need it for next year’s math class. Why do I need next year’s math class? Because you will need it to graduate. And why do I care about graduation? Because you need a high school degree to go to college or vocational school. Why do I need college or vocational school? Because you need more education to find a job in a competitive global economy? Why do I need to a job? So that you can live, pay your bills, raise a family, enjoy the world. Why do I need to do these things? Because they contribute to the greater good. And why should I care about the greater good? And on, and on, and on. Eventually, every answer becomes depressingly utilitarian. We do these things because they have pragmatic value. BORING! As Christian educators, we have a better story to tell. We teach and we learn because all truth is God’s truth. Because every equation displays God’s handiwork, and every element on the periodic table gives evidence of God’s ingenuity, and every musical note sounds God’s beauty, and every star in the solar system declares the God’s glory, and every language expresses God’s love, and every event in history ultimately tells His story. And we are story tellers. And what an amazing story we get to tell.

[1] The idea that Christian education casts out fear I owe to Dr. Dennis Sansom, Professor of Philosophy at Samford University. He presented this idea in a Convocation address to the university sometime during the 2006-2007 academic year.

Biblical Interpretation Education Leadership Theology

In the Beginning – Reflections on Genesis 1

[Note: The following is a sermon I preached at Samford University in 2012. Because it is a sermon, it is longer than my typical blog posts. I’m blogging it here as I begin a series on Genesis for young adults at Shades Mountain Baptist.]

For the past few years I’ve been teaching through the Bible each semester; that’s all the way through the Bible in about 4 months (approximately 36 hour-long class periods). The disadvantage of this approach is lack of depth but the advantage is the big picture. There’s no time to miss the forest for the trees. So often we look at the trees – those individual stories that fill the Bible – Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, Jonah, etc. and the moral lessons they teach. We miss the forest – the One Story of creation, fall, rescue and redemption. Take Jonah for example. We often read and remember the story like this: God told Jonah to go to some city and preach. Jonah refused so God had him swallowed by a big fish. The moral of the story is “you’d better obey or something bad might happen to you.” We fail to see how Jonah is connected to the larger narrative of scripture, that Jonah was told to go to Nineveh, the capital city of the Assyrian Empire, sworn enemies of Jonah and the nation of Israel that was his home. This is why he fled, not simply out of disobedience but fear for his life. If he goes, the Assyrians will likely kill him and if they repent, his countrymen will likely kill him for helping save a dangerous enemy. We tend to ignore Jonah chapter 4 that tells us Jonah went, preached, and the Ninevites repented and God spared them in spite of his threats to destroy them, and Jonah got angry. And the lesson God teaches Jonah is that God cares about all people, even those we hate, and fear, and write off as too far gone for God. The Bible is filled with stories of God reaching out to people beyond reach and calling us to do the same.

Genesis introduces us to the ONE story of the creation, fall, rescue, and redemption of all humanity. When I was a kid my favorite toy was Legos. I had dozens of sets, thousands of little pieces that I could assemble any way my imagination saw fit. And every Lego engineer knows that when it’s time to get serious, the first step is to find a large open spot on the floor and dump out all the Legos. Only then can you see what pieces you’ve got, begin creatively to think of the design possibilities, and then start putting things together. Genesis 1 dumps out the Legos. We see from the beginning the major characters and theological themes that permeate scripture. Now I’m going to look at the first 5 verses of Genesis 1 to examine the Who, What and How of creation, and therefore the Who, What and How of the One story of the Bible.

  1. First, who created? “In the beginning, God created.” This is how it begins. The most read, copied, translated, distributed, and sold book in human history begins with “In the beginning, God.” Before the beginning of time and space, before anything we can know, or see, or comprehend, before any-thing, there was God – pre-existent, eternal, the uncreated creator creates. “And the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters,” hovering a Hebrew word connoting the way a mother bird hovers over her babies – concern, care, nurture. “And God said” – there was the spoken word. The apostle John, inspired by these words, wrote the following:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it. And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.

God, Spirit, Word – Father, Son, Holy Spirit – all three together, in the beginning – one, inseparable yet distinct, one person with three natures, equality, unity, trinity. From the earliest words of scripture we see a profound and mysterious truth about God. God is relational, God is love, even before there were people to love. Innate within God’s being, central to God’s character, the essence of God’s nature is love. Why did God create? Not out of need or necessity or loneliness or isolation. Not so that God could become love, but because God is love. He created because he loves. Why does loneliness and isolation hurt? Why does conflict with others feel so stressful? Why does alienation from community, or family, or friends make you sad? Because creation itself originates with a God who is innately relational so that loneliness, isolation, conflict, and alienation are contrary to the very essence of creation and the heart of God.

  1. Second, what was created? “And God said, ‘Let there be ….’” What did God create? The physical universe. Before the beginning, God was all there was, and then God created out of nothing, something that was different, new, separate, other than God. God used his ultimate, unsurpassed power to bring something out of nothing, to give power, individuality and freedom. Not pawns or puppets, not lines of code in a computer program that is running its course. We, and the world that we occupy are free. Free beings. Free to relate to God. Or not. Free to enjoy God’s creation. Or not. God in His sovereignty made us free, and that is good.

7x God pronounced the world good. God used his ultimate and unsurpassed power for good. The physical space we occupy, the natural world, the environment, the air we breathe, the food we eat, the water we drink, our bodies, appetites, senses, emotions, thoughts, all intended for good. Fallen and broken and twisted and perverted, yes, as we will see in Genesis 3, but as designed, they are good. Here we see one of the great truths – that evil exists only as the absence or perversion of good. Genesis 1 mentions darkness to show us the world without light. Without the Word, the world would remain in darkness. But God spoke, and light vanquished the darkness because darkness is nothing more than the absence of light. Dark is no-thing. Light is something and it is good. By analogy, all that is bad in our world and in your life is bad because something that is good is missing or messed up. Light is good. It grows plants, produces food, and nourishes our bodies with vitamin D. Too much light, without SPF 30 or higher, turns a day at the beach into a nightmare for a fair-skinned, formerly red-headed campus minister. The same sun that nourishes the earth can scorch the soil and skin. Without the light, there’d be no soil and skin to scorch. Food is good. There are few joys greater than a good home-cooked meal. But too much food and you’ll get sick. Not enough food and you’ll get sick. Poisoned or spoiled or tainted food can make you sick. All that is wrong is wrong because God made something that was right, and it went wrong. We are free. That is good. But God made the world so that it could go wrong. And he knew it would go wrong and he created it anyway. Why? Because a fallen and redeemed world is greater than a world that never fell in the first place.

  1. Third, how did God create? Here’s the formula repeated in chapter 1: “God said … God separated … God called.” God spoke things into being, put everything in its place, and gave everything a name, designated it for a purpose. In other words, God orders and gives purpose to all things. Here’s how the text drives home this truth: In Genesis 1, we see 7 days. The name of God is mentioned 35 times (a multiple of 7). The word heaven is mentioned 21 times. The word earth is also mentioned 21 times (multiples of 7). The word good is mentioned 7 times. The number 7, the perfect number, the number of completion, illustrates order and purpose. All that God created is free and for a purpose. What purpose? Now that’s the question isn’t it? The answer to that question is the meaning of life, the ultimate truth, the reason you’re alive and breathing and here in this room. You have a purpose more profound than you can imagine, greater than yourself, of immeasurable value and meaning. And here it is, right here in Genesis 1. The God of creation created you because he loves you and has a purpose for you. This seems elementary, grade school, old hat. Yet it’s the meaning of life and we forget it every day. In the chaos of our busy lives, we forget our purpose. Genesis calls us to remember.

Now let me pause, here near the end of this sermon, and say that we’ve been talking about Genesis for [18] minutes now and not once have I mentioned evolution, the issue that has dominated conversations about the Genesis for the past 90 years. Often, the questions we ask aren’t the ones Genesis answers because Genesis has a greater purpose. Let me illustrate.

In the summer of 2011 I taught a course in London and spent a weekend in Paris with my wife and three kids. While there we visited the Louvre. The Louvre is one of the world’s largest museums and is the most visited museum in the world with over 15,000 visitors daily. The Louvre employs 2000 people, contains 380,000 objects, is comprised of 652,300 square feet of exhibit space that cover 100 acres. It’s a 5-6 mile walk just to traverse every corridor. Without question, the Louvre single greatest collection of art and antiquities in human history. Perhaps the most famous piece of art at the Louvre is the Mona Lisa. The day we were there, crowds swelled around the painting so that it took us almost 20 to get close to it. I put my then 6 year-old Kate on my shoulders so she could see. And when we got close, she uttered these words that I’ll always remember: “I want some Nutella.” For those of you not familiar, Nutella is a creamy chocolate hazelnut spread that the Parisians are crazy about. They serve it in crapes all over Paris, and in the snack bar at the Louvre, and my daughter has some just as we entered the museum. [By the way, it turns out that eating Nutella within close proximity of priceless art is “frowned upon.”] But after 4 miles of walking through the museum Kate was hungry again. And so as we stood inches in front of the most famous and recognizable work of art in history, all that my daughter could think about was a tasty snack.

Often times we go to Genesis, or for that matter to the Bible, or for that matter to God himself, with OUR questions, our agenda, our curiosities, our desires for a spiritual snack. The corridors of the Bible filled with beauty and value beyond imagination and miss the splendor of the stories in front of us because we crave intellectual junk food. The questions we ask are not the ones God is answering and the questions God is addressing are often not the ones we are asking.

So why are we here? Because a God who loves you created you for a purpose, to love him and to reflect him to the world. This is what it means to “glorify God.” And there is nothing more important in the entire universe than that. The question is, is that the most important thing in your universe? College is busy. Your world after college is even busier. How do you keep it all in order? God turned chaos into the cosmos! Will you allow that God to bring order to the chaos of life? That is the question that matters.

Biblical Interpretation Theology

7 Important Things You Need to Know To Better Understand the Bible

I will admit that preachers and teachers can sometimes complicate biblical interpretation. I can understand the sentiment behind the statement “the Bible just means what it says.” Some academic approaches to biblical analysis can obscure the straightforward meaning of a text. But that doesn’t mean that the Bible is a simple book every part of which is easily accessible at first glance. The Bible is literature, after all, and that means there are some analytical tools that can help elucidate its meaning and prevent you from making it say whatever you want it to say.  Here are 7 things that in my estimation are essential for a better understanding of the Bible, one that gets as close as possible to the meaning that its authors intended when they wrote it, and one that prevents ideology and opinion from distorting its message. It will be evident as you read that I hold a high view of scripture and believe it to be the inspired word of God that we should use as an authority for the life and practice of faith, but I will steer clear of arguments about inerrancy and the historical or scientific nature of biblical texts. My purpose here is to help the average student of the Bible make reasonable sense out of what he or she reads.

1. Find a good translation of the Bible. The Bible was not written in English. It was written in Hebrew and Greek, with a little Aramaic thrown in the mix. This means that unless you know these languages, somebody has to translate the Bible for you to read it. Here’s the thing – not all translations are equal in accuracy or readability. Some are more literal, and often more difficult to read, while others are less literal and more readable, but potentially less accurate. Some translations are done by individuals and others by committees. All translators have an agenda, a theological perspective that they bring to the translation process that affects how they translate certain texts. In other words, all translation is simultaneously interpretation. Anyone who’s studied a foreign language knows this to be true. With this in mind, I suggest that you use multiple translations for reading, but select one for study purposes that is translated by a committee with as little a theological agenda as possible. In my opinion, the NIV is perhaps the best for casual reading, and the NRSV and ESV are two accurate, reasonably literal translations appropriate for study.

2. Understand the genre of the text you are reading. Not every book of the Bible should be read in the same way. You don’t read Genesis the same way you read Malachi. Matthew and Revelation require entirely different sets of interpretative skills. A flat reading of scripture, one that approaches the narrative texts, wisdom literature, prophets, Gospels, epistles, and apocalyptic texts all in the same manner is inevitably going to miss or distort the message. Learn the particularities of each genre in scripture and be aware of those traits as you read and study. A simple book like How To Read The Bible For All It’s Worth (Fee and Stuart) can help you identify the basic types of literature found in the Bible and give you some simple pointers for how best to understand that literature. After all, we don’t read Harry Potter the same way we read Shakespeare, and Freakanomics is a fundamentally different kind of book than The Hunger Games. We are familiar with these types of literature because they are part of our culture. The biblical texts were written and shaped within a culture that we are not likely to understand without some education.

3. Don’t miss the forest for the trees. Chapter and verse divisions, as helpful as they are, were not put into the text by the authors themselves, but added by later editors to facilitate Bible study. The negative consequence of their addition is that we tend to dissect the text and miss larger contexts and themes. We read verses rather than books, and our microscopic view of meaning becomes a cheap substitute for a broader comprehension of the narrative and its message. In other words, we may know Bible stories (Adam, Noah, Moses, David, Elijah, etc.) while missing the Bible’s story – the redemption of humankind. Read the books of the Bible the way they were meant to be read (or heard). Read them in their entirety, in one sitting, from start to finish. Only when you’ve got a sense of the overall narrative flow of a book are you ready to break it down into its constituent parts. And only when you’ve read the Bible itself broadly to see how the books are arranged and for what reasons, are you ready to comprehend how an individual book functions in the overarching drama of scripture.

4. Do your best to determine the author’s intended meaning. To determine what a text means you should begin by doing your best to determine what the text meant. I would not argue that a text can only mean for us what it meant for its original audience, but I do think that authorial intent is a responsible place to begin. Of course we cannot always know with certainty what the author intended a text to mean, but that doesn’t excuse us from trying to figure it out. The author’s intended meaning is an important limit on meaning; it keeps us from making the Bible say whatever we want it to say.

5. Learn context. Determining authorial intent can be challenging with even the most straightforward texts. Without context, you aren’t likely to understand the intended meaning. The historical, social, literary, or cultural context of a passage can have a dramatic impact on your interpretation. Knowing as much as possible about the world of the author, his or her language, customs, beliefs, values, etc., is of great value for making decisions about meaning. There are quality, affordable tools readily available to most anyone who wants to learn more about the world of the author, including Bible dictionaries, commentaries, language grammars, lexicons, Study-Bible notes, and a plethora of apps and online resources. As you use these tools over the years, you begin to learn enough basic context to help you even when the tools are not readily available.

6. Learn the difference between description and prescription. A description tells us what happened, while a prescription tells us what we should do. Often the Bible tells us what happened, not what should have happened or what should happen for all time and history. For example, the narrative texts of the Old Testament tell the story of people who are not necessarily role models to emulate, but rather fallible people who God chose to use to accomplish his purposes at a unique point in history. Similarly, the narratives of Acts tell us how early Christ-followers sought to navigate the complexities of becoming the Church in a culture increasingly hostile to Christian faith. There are lessons there for us in the description, but not necessarily hard-and-fast rules that should apply in every context. Clearly, the Bible contains prescription (the Ten Commandments, the teachings of Christ, etc.), but sometimes epistles give us opinion, as in 1 Corinthians 7.12 where Paul writes “To the rest I say this (not Christ but I) ….” Distinguishing between the two can sometimes be tricky, so we should take care with interpretation and extend grace to those who disagree.

7. The argument from silence is a weak foundation for belief or behavior. The Bible can sometimes be frustratingly silent on topics that we might find important. You will occasionally hear someone argue that since the Bible doesn’t speak about a topic, or because Jesus didn’t say anything about the issue, then we are free to choose as we wish how to believe or behave with regard to that issue. This amounts to an argument from silence – drawing conclusions based on the absence of statements in a text rather their presence. This is a commonly used but incredibly weak technique for establishing the legitimacy of a belief or practice. The Bible is not meant to be a systematic theology text. The Bible is a collection of occasional texts, documents written to address a particular historical context, difficulty, or question. As such, the Bible doesn’t always answer the questions we ask, and it often answers questions we aren’t asking. In some instances, you can extrapolate from what the Bible does say to make an educated guess about what it doesn’t. But this will be a guess, so be humble about your guesses. If you find yourself asking questions that the text isn’t, maybe you should be asking a different set of questions.

Bible Biblical Interpretation

The Message of Christianity as Simply as I Know How to Explain It

God created all things and called the world that he created “very good.” Man and woman, happy and in perfect relationship with the creation and the Creator. Tempted by the desire to be like God, man and woman rebelled against God and sin entered the world. Every evil, every ounce of suffering, every war and death and disease and disaster originates from a good creation that is broken by sin. 

In response, God chooses the nation of Israel to use for his purposes to begin to restore the world. He taught Israel how to live as his chosen people, set them free from captivity, provided for their needs and gave them the law (10 Commandments, and a few others). But the law that was a gift was also a curse. The law exposes how truly broken we are. This was God’s plan all along, to teach us that we cannot be good enough to fix the world, to be genuinely happy again, or to restore a perfect relationship with God. The prophets, priests, and kings of Ancient Israel teach us that in the pages of the Old Testament.

Enter Jesus. He was an Israelite, the next step in God’s plan through Israel to remake the creation. He was born, lived, and died as a human being. But he was also God, the Son of God, the incarnation of God, the fullness of God in a human being. He was tempted like us, laughed like us, hurt like us, cried like us, bled like us, but without sin, without fault. So when he was executed he didn’t deserve it. He sacrificed himself for us, and in some mysterious way that I cannot fully understand, he took upon himself the sin and pain and misery of the world in order to fix it. There was a debt I owed that he paid. I was captive to an old life and he set me free. I deserved a punishment that he took in my place. The God of the universe is so just that he could not ignore sin, and so filled with love that he could not let it destroy us. So God sent Jesus to fix the problem. And Jesus did, and is continuing to do so, and will one day complete that task for good at the end of time, at the end of the world as we know it. In the words of Andrew Peterson, the world was good, the world is fallen, the world will be redeemed.

What does this mean for us? We cannot fix ourselves. We cannot manage our own spiritual lives. We cannot restore ourselves or the world to the good condition in which God created it. We need Jesus. And the good news is this, literally the Gospel is this, that Jesus invites us to follow him, to believe in him, to trust him with our lives. And if we do so, he saves us from all that is wrong with us and from all that is wrong with the world. He restores us to a right relationship with God and with other people, gives us companionship, meaning and purpose in the Church, and begins the process of fixing everything. We do nothing to earn what God gives – this is grace, all of God offered to us in Christ. We acknowledge our sin and accept God’s gift, with the faith that God is who the Bible says he is, and that Jesus did what the Bible says he did for us. We enter a new relationship with him. All things become new.

– Presented at Freshmen Retreat, Samford University, August 29, 2014 and Shades Mountain Baptist UMin, August 31, 2014

Bible Biblical Interpretation Theology

Myths Christians Believe (Part 2)

Continuing in my multi-part series on the subject, here’s the latest installment. For Part 1 (myths 1 and 2) and the appropriate footnotes and credits, go here.

Myth 3: It is wrong to doubt.

In support of this myth, I have heard some quote James 1:5-7: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.”

This passage does not constitute a blanket condemnation of doubt. In this context, James is speaking to the instability of one who has confidence enough to ask God for wisdom (believing that God is able), but simultaneously doubts that God will give it. This double-mindedness is not a fault of the intellect, but rather a fault of the will, an unwillingness to hold fast to what the intellect has already accepted in the face of changing circumstances. I know that airline travel is relatively safe. I have good evidence to support this belief. So if I get nervous when I fly, I am double-minded in the way James condemns. If, however, I have doubts about the safety of a particular mode of travel based on evidence, that doubt is not only justified, it is wise.

Nowhere does the Bible condemn honest, intellectually curious doubt. The Old Testament book of Job expresses that kind of doubt. Thomas expressed that kind of doubt about the resurrection. Jesus expresses that kind of doubt when he prayed before his execution, “Father, if it is possible, remove this cup from me.” If Jesus had doubts about the necessity of his primary mission, then surely our intellectual doubts are equally legitimate, and sometimes necessary. Of course, Jesus also added, “Nevertheless, not my will but Yours be done,” proving that sometimes faith and doubt necessarily coexist. As the theologian Paul Tillich argues, doubt is not the opposite of faith. Doubt is an unavoidable element of faith (Dynamics of Faith, Chapter 1, section 5).

There is no shame or guilt in honest intellectual doubt. There is, however, guilt associated with the kind of laziness that holds fast to a belief with no evidence to support it. Faith is NOT belief in the absence of evidence. Faith is the conviction to hold on to a belief that logic has convinced you is true, even when it is uncomfortable or inconvenient to do so.

Myth 4: The more exotic the more spiritual.

I work at a Christian college where, in a few days, students will return to campus and begin to compare their summers. Among those who served the poor in India or started a non-profit in Africa, there will inevitably a student or two who shamefully admits that his/her job was to babysit for a family in Atlanta or to work at McDonalds, as if somehow these job choices represent lesser ways to live out the Christian life. I read books advocating for believers to live a radical life. I hear sermons advocating international adoption, life in the inner city, and international missions among unreached people groups, worthy and needed objectives all of them. Yet I fear that these constant refrains run the risk of marginalizing those who live in the suburbs, own a small business, and work hard every day to raise their kids. Normal people can be people of faith too, yes? In fact, if I’m called to campus ministry among the world’s educated elite, and I choose instead to dig wells in the African dessert, haven’t I forsaken my gifts and my calling in a way that dishonors God?

We sometimes forget that Paul, the radical apostle and missionary of the New Testament, also suggested to believers in Thessalonica that they “aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands” (1 Thessalonians 4.11).  It took skilled workers, craftsmen, and artists to design the ancient Jewish tabernacle and its accompanying furnishings, yet of these very normal, hard-working people, the book of Exodus (chapter 31) says, “I have filled [them] with the Spirit of God, with ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship….” God ordained these workers to the very ordinary task of building things. This was their purpose and calling, and to denigrate the ordinary, whether intentionally or unintentionally, is to denigrate the wisdom of God. Obedience, whether in the exotic or the ordinary, is the appropriate faith response to God.

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10 Myths That Christians Believe (Part 1)

“Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives’ tales; rather, train yourself to be godly.” – 1 Timothy 4:7

Sometimes Christian culture helps popularize some ideas about faith and spirituality that are simply false. These myths are false because either they plainly contradict the testimony of scripture or they run counter to the experiences of wise believers through the centuries. After over 24 years of work in ministry and higher education, I have seen these myths in many forms and know the disillusionment that they can cause. I am sure there are other myths that I still hold, and I can only hope that people wiser than me will eventually help disavow me of those myths, as others have pointed these out to me.

Along those lines, I owe a special thanks to Andy Byers who gave a talk on this subject at Samford University and later wrote a book that includes some of this material. Students have frequently told me that Andy’s talk on this subject was among the most memorable of their college experience, so the idea obviously struck a nerve. I have used the idea (with Andy’s blessing) for talks at Mississippi State University and Southeastern Bible College. I have both borrowed from Andy and inserted my own ideas in the posts that follow. If there’s anything true here, then thank Andy. If there’s anything false, blame me. Because of the length of this particular topic, I will post these myths as a series, with links to each of the earlier posts in the later ones.

Myth #1: The Bible answers all your questions.

While I appreciate the sentiment behind this common remark, it is simply false, primarily because we so often ask the wrong questions. The Bible was written in a culture very different from our own, and so people tend to seek answers to questions that the Bible’s authors never intended to answer. Most biblical authors were Hebrew in ethnicity, culture and thought, but the education system in the U.S. is a by-product of the Western intellectual tradition. If you ask Western questions of an ancient Near Eastern text, you aren’t likely to get coherent answers. Students often look to the Bible for advice on dating. They want guidance for choosing a university, or academic major, or career, or spouse, or political party. They want help solving their problems and sorting out the mess of their everyday lives. But if you use the Bible primarily in these ways, you are likely to find it difficult, boring, confusing, or disappointing.

Teachers know that when students ask, “Will this be on the exam?” that they are missing the point. Similarly, students of the Bible often miss the main point of the Bible. The Bible isn’t really about you and your life and your decisions, as much as it is about God, and God’s plan, and God’s love for his people, and by extension his love for all people, and the extent to which God demonstrates that love in Christ. So the next time you open up the Bible hoping that it will help you decide for whom you should vote in the next election, don’t be angry if your neighbor does the same thing and comes up with a different answer.

Myth #2: God will never give me more than I can handle.

The problem with this notion is that it actually contradicts the Bible outright. One of the Bible’s main characters, a missionary named Paul, had a pretty difficult life during his final years. He did not suffer due to his mistakes, but because of his faithfulness to God’s mission. By his own account, he experienced trouble, hardship, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, and sword (Romans 8:35). He survived stoning (an ancient form of execution), several beatings, shackles, chains, stocks, and multiple imprisonments. Writing to his friends in Corinth, Paul admits, “We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God” (2 Corinthians 1:8-9).

If we take these words seriously, then we cannot accept the idea that God never gives us more than we can handle. Apparently God does, for at least one specific purpose – that we might renounce the myth of self-reliance. We often harbor the notion that we can make it alone, that we don’t need others, that we don’t need God. Unless you take it by faith that something comes from nothing, then at the very least, the world we inhabit and the life we live originates from his creative design. Sometimes it takes pain to remind us of that. It takes situations that we cannot handle to remind us of God, by whose strength we can handle anything. And that really is the point of faith isn’t it, to release our obsession with self and rely on someone else?

[Myths 3-5 will follow in the next post.]

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