Appearance is Everything

We live in a world where most of us make judgements with less than all of the facts. After all, it’s almost impossible to have all of the facts. The problem is that we often don’t even have enough facts but that doesn’t stop us from reaching certain conclusions.

Mary Poppins addressed our penchant for quick assumptions when she sang; A cover is nice, but a cover is not the book. Her point is that you can’t judge people by their looks – there’s more to them than you see on the outside.  There’s some truth to her downhome philosophy. Too often we pass judgment on people based solely on external, even trivial things.

A cover is not the book.

But there are times when we need to pay attention to appearance. Not our physical appearance (although it would help if some people did!) but our spiritual appearance. People make judgements on the authenticity of your spiritual life by how your life appears to them.

1 Thessalonians 5:22 says abstain from every kind of evil. Some of the older translations say abstain from all appearance of evil.  The original word can mean either kind or appearance. There’s really not much difference between the two. Appearing to do evil is one kind of evil. One translation is more general the other is more specific.

Regardless of which translation you prefer, the concept of how we as Christians appear to other people is important. That’s one reason there is an emphasis in the Bible on holiness. Because we are to be holy and we are to appear to be holy.

When people look at us they shouldn’t have to wonder if we are holy or not. They shouldn’t have to think about the rightness or wrongness of our actions.

It’s entirely appropriate in evaluating our actions to ask the question, How does this appear to my neighbor? Do they think that I’m lying? Do they think that I’m cheating my employer? Do they think that I’m committing adultery?

They may jump to the wrong conclusions because they don’t have all of the facts, but that’s really our problem, not theirs. We have to make sure that whatever facts they have, however limited, are in line with the Word of God.

What exactly do people think when they look at me? What does the appearance of my life tell them?

What they think is often determined by what they see. And even if they don’t see it all – or if they see it inaccurately, the burden falls on us.

Appearance is everything.

Stay in the Word

Pastor Steve

Stop Obsessing

According to the Council on Foreign Relations there are five critical conflicts, eleven significant conflicts and nine limited conflicts taking place in the world. Twenty-five in all, and that’s only counting the conflicts that impact the interests of the United States (you can read their report at https://www.cfr.org/interactive/global-conflict-tracker?category=us).

There’s no mention in their report of the unrest in Haiti, or the MNLF in the Philippines – conflicts that seriously impact people locally but (let’s be honest here) that we don’t have a vested interest in so they are of little interest to America as a nation.

By one count there may be as many as fifty-five conflicts presently on-going in the world today. That’s a significant number.

Robert Malley, president of the International Crisis Group has said, The international order as we know it is unravelling, with no clear sense of what will come in its wake (https://www.ceasefire.ca/trends-and-trouble-spots-in-2019/).

So naturally people are asking, is this the end? Are we at that point in human history when we are literally looking into the abyss?

Jesus talked about the final days of history and identified one characteristic of this period of time as wars and rumors of wars (Matthew 24:6). With that anticipation, it’s logical that Christians will ask if we are in the last times.

But for many Christians, it’s more than just a question. It has become, if not an obsession then certainly a major emphasis in their study and personal lives.

But we don’t need to obsess over it. Whether or not we are in the final days shouldn’t change anything. It’s interesting to think about but it should not be a determining factor in how we live out our lives.

The Apostle Peter makes this clear in his discussion on the Day of the Lord (2 Peter 3:10-13). After telling us that,

the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night, in which the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements will melt with fervent heat; both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up,

he asks the million-dollar question – Therefore, since all these things will be dissolved, what manner of persons ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness?

Peter (read God here) is more concerned with how we live in light of the end than he is with our obsession with all things future. Frankly, an infatuation with the end times, or a penchant for calculating when the end will come, is a waste of time and energy. We should instead be spending our time and energy on holy living and godliness.

We don’t live holy lives because we think that Jesus might come back tonight. We live holy lives because it’s the right thing to do and we need to do it regardless of the timing of His return. Our lives should reflect godliness whether He returns tomorrow or a thousand years from tomorrow.

Our focus is to be holy living, not the end times. The end times is the incentive, but holy living is the goal.

The question is not When will Jesus come? The question is Am I living like Jesus today?

Stay in the Word

Pastor Steve

In the House of Suffering

I’m in a series in our church that we’re calling No Life for Sissies. It’s about the Christian life. If you live the Christian life the way the New Testament lays it out for us, you’ll find that it’s not easy – in fact it’s a hard life.

Which brings me to this – if you’re a Christian and you find that the Christian life is easy, you’re probably not doing it right.

Do it right and you’ll find out that it’s hard. No all of the time, but much of the time.

Several weeks ago I spoke on It’s Not Easy to Suffer.

As Christians, God has called us to a life of suffering. Suffering for your faith (1 Peter 3:14), suffering for others (2 Corinthians 1:3-7), suffering for the name of Christ (1 Peter 4:12-16).

When you suffer your response is what matters.

So how should we respond to suffering?

Since there are different types of suffering there are also different ways to respond. But there are some general responses that will apply to all types of suffering. Here are three things that you can do to turn your suffering from a negative into a spiritual positive in your life.

Try to understand what God is doing in your suffering.

We believe that nothing happens to us by accident. That God has a plan and a purpose for everything that takes place in our lives. That means that when you go through times of suffering, God is working. He has a purpose for your suffering.

And while you may not be able to definitively determine His purpose, it’s helpful to try and understand to the extent that you can.

Spend time in the Word. Spend time in prayer. Look for answers. Ask God to reveal some spiritual insight to you that will help you understand His divine actions.

Even if you never come to a conclusive answer, the effort will be beneficial.

Let your suffering move you closer to God.

It’s true that everything in life will either move you closer to God or farther from Him. And in the mystery of the Divine/Human cooperative, you get to decide which will be true in your moment of suffering.

Allow your suffering to move you closer to God. Closer in fellowship with Him. Closer in worship. Closer in prayer. Closer in dependence. Closer in trust. Closer in love.

View your time of suffering as a holy place.

We don’t normally think of suffering as a place of holiness – but it can be. It can become that place where you grow in the spiritual disciplines of Bible reading, meditation, prayer, silence, solitude, and learning.

Most likely your place of suffering will either become a place of holiness or it will become a place of carnality. It will either be a place that feeds your soul or a place that feeds your flesh.

In our humanness our natural inclination is to allow our sufferings to become times of unholiness. Fight against it – make it a holy place.

Suffering, for whatever reason, is never easy. But it can be beneficial. Don’t waste periods of suffering. Allow them to be times of spiritual growth in your life.

Stay in the Word
Pastor Steve

Is This the Beginning of the End?

You will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not troubled; for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nations, and kingdom against kingdom. And there will be famines, pestilences, and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of sorrows (Matthew 24:6-8).

CNN headline of September 9, 2017: Mexico’s strongest earthquake in a century leaves dozens dead. Read article here.

Washington Post article of April 11, 2017 reporting that 20 million people are living in famines: Starving to Death. Read article here.

New York Times headline of September 9, 2017: Hurricane Irma Is One of the Strongest Storms In History. Read article here.

By now you are familiar with the headlines and the disasters. Not only are they affecting us but disasters are taking place around the world.

The question that people are asking is: Are Natural Disasters Increasing? According to an article of the same name published by the Borgen Project the answer is Yes. You can read it here. The evidence seems to point in both directions depending on who you listen to.

The question on the increase of natural disasters is especially important to Christians, many of whom believe that there will be a dramatic increase just before the return of Christ. Two well-known evangelicals, Anne Graham Lotz and her brother Franklin Graham have both released statements recently pointing to the end times. Her statement is here.

Franklin Graham wrote on his Facebook page:

Wildfires raging on the West Coast. Violent hurricanes, one after the other, ravaging everything in their paths, with one of the worst—Irma—bearing down on Florida. A magnitude 8.1 earthquake shook the southern parts of Mexico this week, and we even recently experienced a rare solar eclipse. The Bible says in Luke 21:25, “…there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves.” In Matthew 24:7 it says, “For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places.” These are some of the Biblical signs before Christ’s return. Nobody knows the day or hour, not even the Son of God, but it is a reminder to all of us to be ready—to repent and confess our sins, and ask for God’s forgiveness. In the meantime, we can find comfort, peace, and hope in Him. As we pray for all those affected by the current disasters, we should also remember God’s promise to us in John 16:33, “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”

Whether the things we are seeing today are the beginning of the end or not is a question that can be debated. As Graham points out, no one knows the exact time of Christ’s return. Christians have expected His return in every generation since the beginning of the church.

What so many Christians miss in their discussion of end times events, natural disasters and the return of Christ is how all of this relates to our lives. The Apostle Peter addressed this in his second epistle in the context of the Second Coming.

Therefore, since all these things will be dissolved, what manner of persons ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness (2 Peter 3:11)?

Great question!

Peter was not concerned that we are able to explain all of the events of prophecy; his concern was how we live.

Anne Graham Lotz may be right that we are seeing God’s judgment on America, but maybe we’ve missed another message that God is sending His people. If Irma and other natural disasters do anything for us they should move us to live holy and godly lives. Maybe that’s what this is all about.

Let’s not waste a great opportunity to be lights and salt in the world (Matthew 5:13-16).

God is more interested in how you live not in how much you know.

Stay in the Word
Pastor Steve

Stop Cursing the Darkness

In case you haven’t noticed we are living in a rapidly changing world. Life-altering changes are occurring across a wide spectrum of society including technology, entertainment, medicine, the economy and society.

Change can be good. We are living longer and better because of change. We stay in contact with more people in more places today because of change. We have a better standard of living because of change. We get a glimpse into the lives of other nations and people and understand them better because of change. But not all change is to be accepted equally. Not all change is good. This is perhaps most noticeable in the changes we see taking place in our society.

Today we are witnessing some of the most profound changes in our culture and society that any of us can remember. This was brought out in an internet article under the title Are America’s Absurdly Homophobic Ways Just Buried in History? Don’t let the author’s calculated, prejudicial title, or the fact that she writes from a position on the extreme left put you off. Her main point, and at least this much is true, is that our western society is embracing rapid change, especially in the area of same-sex relationships. While we are not yet where she thinks we need to be, she points out evidence that suggests we are on the right track – at least her right track. What is interesting about her article is that she could have substituted several other topics for same-sex marriage and written the same article. As a culture we are changing and not always in good ways.

As Christians we recognize that our culture is changing in ways that often militate against our faith and our too typical reaction is to curse the darkness. But we also need to recognize that we have a choice: we can either curse the darkness around us or we can take steps to dispel the darkness. We were never promised a culture that would love us, respect our faith, or look at us as being desirable members of society – in fact a good case can be made from scripture for just the opposite response (Luke 6:22).

None of this should surprise us. We really shouldn’t be surprised at the downward progression of our western culture. We shouldn’t be surprised that we are characterized as being absurdly homophobic, or to use another descriptive phrase from the author, bigoted and homophobic. I can think of at least two reasons why the slide of our culture into the slough of immorality should come as no surprise to us: First, people without Christ are simply acting as people without Christ. They are following their fallen nature and except for the fact that God has changed us we would be right there with them. We should expect them to act this way.

The second reason that none of this should take us by surprise is because God told us this would happen. The Apostle Paul famously begins chapter three of 2 Timothy with the words but know this, in the last days perilous times will come. He goes on to describe these perilous times: people will be lovers of themselves . . . unholy . . . without self-control . . . despisers of good (always understand the biblical word good in the context of what God says is good, not what people think is good) . . . lovers of pleasure. Does that sound like our culture or what!?

So let’s stop cursing the darkness. It’s here. It’s to be expected. Cursing what we don’t like is the easy way out. But the spiritual darkness is here and it’s not going away, at least not until Jesus comes.

Instead of cursing the darkness try being a light to dispel some of the darkness around you (Matthew 5:14-16). If you provide some light in the darkness of your world some people will respond to the light and be drawn to the One who is the Light of the world. And that’s how you defeat the darkness.

Stay in the Word
Pastor Steve

Christians and Civil Discourse

One of the areas that Christians seem to shy away from discussing is Christians and Civil Discourse. Put simply, civil discourse has to do with how we verbally (in person, in writing, on Facebook or Twitter etc) engage people with different opinions (often held passionately) in a kind and courteous manner.

As I began to look at the information available online several things stood out. The first thing that I noticed was that there are a number of organizations who make the concept of civil discourse a major aspect of their focus. The Nation Institute for Civil Discourse, the Project Civil Discourse, the Institute for Civil Discourse and Democracy, and Citizens for Civil Discourse (whose primary goal seems to be to stop politicians from making robocalls! – I think they may be onto something!) are just a few that I found.

The second thing that I quickly noticed in my brief survey was that I only found one Christian organization that addressed this issue. There may be more, and probably are, but I didn’t find them. That shouldn’t be. As Christians we should be at the forefront of the discussion. After all, our faith directly addresses this issue.

I recognize that the issue of civil discourse can be used to intimidate people into silence by their opponents. The minute something is said that disagrees with their position the label of intolerant is hung on them and they are accused of violating the laws of civil discourse. Christians can run up against this in the areas of same sex relationships and abortion. That in itself, however, should not stop us from addressing those who disagree with us in a Biblical, i.e. civil manner.

Several passages are worth noting here. In Colossians 4:6 the Apostle Paul writes: Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt, that you may know how you ought to answer each one. The each one is defined in the preceding verse as those who are outside, that is, unbelievers. As Christians we are to speak to those who disagree with us with grace and in a way that is purifying to the culture around us. Too often we have equated purifying speech with confrontational speech, but God equates it with graceful speech.

Another passage, and there are more, that applies here is Ephesians 4:29-32:

Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice. And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you.

While this was directed to believers interacting with other believers, do you think that God has one standard for how we talk to each other and another standard for how we talk to those outside the faith? Our speech is ALWAYS to impart grace to the hearers. There is NEVER to be a time when what we say can be characterized by bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor or malice. Unfortunately Christians are often the ones accused of ignoring civil discourse, and sometimes it’s true.

I’m not advocating silence. Christians need to speak up on the cultural issues of the day. But we need to do it in a way that is consistent with the Word of God. After all, true civil discourse is simply Godly discourse. In this area we need to be known as people who practice speaking the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15).

Psychics, Fortune Tellers & Horoscopes

Recently I was asked what the Bible says about psychics. It seems that our society is becoming more and more infatuated with the spirit world. Anyone who claims they can communicate with the dead won’t lack for business. It’s even come to television with The Long Island Medium, one of TLC’s highest rated programs. But what does God have to say about things like psychics, fortune tellers and (I would include) horoscopes?

God’s instruction to Israel was very specific, give no regard to mediums and familiar spirits; do not seek after them, to be defiled by them (Leviticus 19:31). Mediums and familiar spirits refer to people who act as mediators between the living and the dead (The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol 3 pg 306). Later God told Israel the person who turns to mediums and familiar spirits, to prostitute himself with them, I will set My face against that person and cut him off from his people (Leviticus 20:6).

Just as Israel prepared to enter the Promised Land, Moses told them, when you come into the land which the Lord God is giving you, you shall not learn to follow the abominations of those nations. There shall not be found among you anyone who makes his son or his daughter pass through the fire (human sacrifices) or one who practices witchcraft, or a soothsayer, or one who interprets omens, or a sorcerer, or one who conjures spells, or a medium, or a spiritist, or one who calls up the dead. For all who do these things are an abomination to the Lord and because of these abominations the Lord your God drives them out from before you. You shall be blameless before the Lord your God (Deuteronomy 18:9-13). The one thing that these terms have in common is that they deal with the spirit world apart from Jesus Christ.

As Israel grew into a mighty nation they were often tempted to mimic the pagan practices of the Canaanites they had displaced. Even some of their kings began to get involved in spiritualistic practices. King Manasseh, one of the wickedest Kings in Judah was condemned by God because he made his son pass through the fire, practiced soothsaying, used witchcraft and consulted spiritists and mediums (2 Kings 21:6).

The prophet Isaiah posed a penetrating question to those who consult with psychics: when they say to you, “seek those who are mediums and wizards, who whisper and mutter” should not a people seek their God? Should they seek the dead on behalf of the living? (Isaiah 8:19).

It’s not just the Old Testament that condemns occult practices, the New Testament does as well. The Apostle Paul liberated a slave girl who was able to tell people’s fortune by the power of the demons that possessed her (Acts 16:16). In the city of Ephesus many who were saved out of a life of spiritism brought their books of magic spells and burned them in a public rejection of that lifestyle (Acts 19:19). Sorcery, which includes the occult, witchcraft and magic, is listed as a work of sin as opposed to a work of the Spirit of God (Galatians 5:20).

When we combine these passages together we can draw several conclusions:

1. Spiritualistic practices are an abomination to God and He condemns them.
2. As followers of God we are to have nothing to do with such practices.
3. Those who are involved in spiritualistic practices come under God’s judgment.
4. We are to seek and communicate with the living God not dead people.

It is clear that any dealing with the spirit world apart from Jesus Christ is a serious violation of the Word of God. Spiritism is satanic in its origin and contrary to everything God has for His children. Dr. John Piper states the situation clearly when he says when the word of Christ captures a person’s mind and heart, all involvement with magical arts goes. It is Jesus versus the occult; you cannot have both.

Stay in the Word
Pastor Steve