Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Responding to the critics of sacrifice

One of the biggest criticisms of our church is its teaching about sacrifice – particularly at the time of the Israel Challenge which occurs twice a year. These are the most common phrases I hear:
  1. Giving offerings or tithes is fine, but teaching that God expects us to sacrifice our possessions today is abusing church members and using the Bible for financial gain.
  2. It’s irresponsible to pressure Christians into giving large amounts of money, especially those who can barely pay their own bills.
  3. The constant teaching of sacrifice during the weeks before the Israel Challenge is nothing more than brainwashing.
  4. If a church is so desperate for money, it should fundraise for whatever project it needs to pay for, and not exploit the Bible to make people feel guilty if they don’t give.
  5. Churches should be known for giving to the poor, not taking from them.
  6. Teaching about financial sacrifices in exchange for answered prayer is teaching greed, and treats God like an ATM.
Let’s talk about each one:
  1. Teaching that God expects us to sacrifice our possessions today is abusing church members and using the Bible for financial gain. – In Acts 4 the early church members sold what they had – land, possessions – and laid it at the apostles feet for the sake of spreading the Gospel. No one lacked anything because as they gave, God provided for them all. It sounds radical, but there is nothing unbiblical about sacrificial giving. It’s everywhere from the widow of Zarephath in the Old Testament to the widow with the two copper coins in the New Testament, to Jesus’ command for the rich young ruler to sell all he had to follow Him, to Jesus’ own sacrifice on the cross that had been foreshadowed by Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac thousands of years earlier. Sacrifice permeates the Bible.
  2. It’s irresponsible to pressure Christians into giving large amounts of money. – Challenging people to live by faith is the core of the Gospel. If someone gives out of their flesh, out of guilt, just for show or obligation, then faith isn’t operating and they have basically thrown away their opportunity to be blessed. But we have documentation of tens of thousands who once were poor, sick and hopeless, and can now testify to God’s power to lift them out of poverty, sickness and hopelessness to a life of abundance and stability because they had the courage to sacrifice not just money, but their lives in dedication to Him. These people didn’t lose a thing, they gained exponentially!
  3. The teaching of sacrifice during the weeks before the Israel Challenge is brainwashing. – Sacrifice is simple to understand, but difficult for hearers to accept. There’s a demonic resistance that no one escapes, no matter how spiritual they are. As many times as God has challenged me to sacrifice something I highly valued, the devil was always there, doing his best to attack me emotionally and give me excuses not to go through with it. The reason is that sacrifice, when done in faith, is a form of intense spiritual warfare. Repetitive teaching can be boring, I’ll admit, if a pastor is not well trained or is not allowing the Spirit to speak through him. But the concept of sacrifice is so powerful that it needs to be developed and explained so that the hearers can make a rational and informed choice on their own.
  4. If a church is desperate for money, it should fundraise for whatever project it needs to pay for. – The Israel Challenge is not the church’s desperate grasp for money. It’s a time when deep spiritual truths are set forth with the full knowledge that they could easily be misunderstood, and the church could be accused of all these statements above. Just like Peter said before the High Court of Israel, “We must obey God rather than man.”
  5. Churches should be known for giving to the poor, not taking from them. – You’ve heard the old saying, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Teaching people to trust in God through sacrifice, is basically thrusting them into a mode of faith that only the persecuted church of the past understood. People discover that they don’t need charity or other people’s help to overcome their problems, they can experience the supernatural power of God themselves through sacrifice. Our church has many social outreach programs that help the homeless, prisoners, the abused and illiterate – but nothing turns around lives like the power of sacrifice.
  6. Teaching about financial sacrifices in exchange for answered prayer is teaching greed, and treats God like an ATM. – Jesus taught, “Give and it shall be given unto you,” and “as you give, you shall receive.” Sacrifices and offerings brought into the old Temple were meant to be done with specific reasons behind them, and at times God asked for specific sacrifices before He granted specific victories. Yes, we should give just for the joy of giving, and anything that is not given freely in love is not a true sacrifice. Yet God treats us as children who need incentives to do what is right, much like we teach our own children good lessons through rewards. Jesus even promises rewards in heaven according to how we’ve lived on earth. Sacrificing and making requests for our lives to be transformed is a perfectly Biblical concept and teaches us to humbly look to God as our Father.  

Moreover, brothers, we want you to experience the grace of God bestowed on the churches of Macedonia, how in a great trial of affliction, the abundance of their joy and their deep poverty overflowed toward the riches of their generous giving. For I bear record that according to their means, and beyond their means, they freely gave, begging us with much urgency that we would receive the gift and the fellowship of ministering to the saints.  2 Corinthians 8:1-4 MEV

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Beautiful Holy Dread – part 2

In the last post I talked about the demonic, oppressive dread that makes us a slave to our feelings. But I also mentioned that another kind of dread exists — a good dread, a holy dread. That might sound “dreadful” to you, but bear with me. It’s something amazing and healthy for our daily relationship with Him.

Job said, “…let not the dread of You make me afraid.” There was something distinctly good about this dread that Job was talking about that makes it different from fear. What is this good dread? It starts with understanding the immensity of who God is, and the power He holds in His hands. The universe can’t contain Him, because He made it and He’s beyond its scope. Time doesn’t limit Him because a day is like a thousand years and a thousand years is like a day. He always was, is, and will be for eternity and can even heal wounds of the past and alter the course of our future with ease. The kingdom of darkness wages war against God’s Kingdom, but even hell itself has to bow before Him. “Do not fear those who kill the body but are not able to kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matthew 10:28)

This idea of teaching about a holy dread is not popular in most churches. We’d rather talk about God’s love, comfort, care, meekness and humility, about His generosity and forgiveness. Christians like to paint mental pictures of Him as a gentle passive being. Just look at the hundreds of lovely quotes about God on Facebook with soft wistful images of flowers or children running through fields. All of those aspects of God are true, but without balancing them with His dreadful and terrible power, we weaken the greatness of His goodness.  

You may have seen pictures of soldiers in wartime armed with the deadliest weapons, caring for children and aiding vulnerable people. Those are powerful images of a more beautiful and intense generosity. When someone appears strong or invincible but chooses to show kindness just because he wants to, it takes on a deeper meaning. It moves us to gratitude, to appreciate the undeserved grace of those actions. That’s why we need to have this holy fear, this holy dread — to see how intense and deep His love is for us.  

God doesn’t need to forgive us, but He does. He doesn’t need to show kindness, generosity, understanding, patience, mercy… He needs absolutely nothing from us because He is all, and everything exists because of Him. But He chooses to anyway, and if we had even a tiny grasp of how truly awesome that is, we would be on our faces in gratitude for our salvation every day. He has every right to cast us into hell, but He chose to make a way for us through the unfair death of His own Son. The God of the Universe took our place! Holy dread needs to fill our minds and hearts because what He has done is unthinkable.  

So, the next time you want to complain about life and reduce God to the level of a weak friend who has disappointed you because He didn’t give you what you wanted the way you wanted it when you wanted it — remember who you’re speaking to. Dwell on His immensity, His dreadful and beautiful power. The greater you exalt Him in your mind and heart, the more you will feel His great love and kindness.

Then the earth shook and quaked; the foundations of the hills also moved; they reeled because His anger burned. Smoke went up out of His nostrils, and fire from His mouth devoured; coals were kindled by it. He bent the heavens and came down, and darkness was under His feet. He rode on a cherub, and flew; He flew swiftly on the wings of the wind.  He made darkness His secret place; His pavilion was surrounding Him, dark waters and thick clouds of the skies. At the brightness before Him His thick clouds passed by, hailstones and coals of fire.  The Lord also thundered in the heavens, and the Most High gave His voice, hailstones and coals of fire. He sent out His arrows and scattered them, and He shot out lightning and distressed them. Then the channels of waters appeared, and the foundations of the world were discovered at Your rebuke, O Lord, at the blast of the breath of Your nostrils.  Psalm 18:7-15 MEV 

Friday, November 18, 2016

The powerful emotion of dread Pt. 1

Dread pops up in the simplest of things. A young man has a project due at work. He knows he can do a good job, but dreads dealing with his boorish overseeing manager. He sets to work haunted by the notion of being laughed at behind his back. He doubts himself and is angry at the unfairness of it all. He pushes himself to just get it done, but the fear of failure and ridicule dull his mind so that he can’t even think. He decides to boost his spirits with a drink or two, some entertainment, time out with friends, or anything to calm his nerves to tackle the project. But days pass and he can barely look at his to-do list, feeling more convinced he’s a loser. He mentally cuts himself down as an irresponsible, lazy idiot who’s lost his chance for a promotion if he’s lucky to even keep the job. The day of his presentation is approaching but instead of pushing through to get it done, he’s paralyzed by dread. 

Doubt, worry, fear: three emotional states that the Bible constantly commands us not to feel, all condense into the intolerable emotion of dread. Dread of an uncertain future, dread of fulfilling a difficult task, dread of pain, unhappiness, alienation, failure, conflict, ridicule, rejection, loss, death. Jesus says that, “The thief comes only to steal, kill and destroy…” (John 10:10) so it follows that the feeling of dread is a conviction that the devil’s plans will come true. Dread is a form of negative faith that drives us further from God and closer to Satan. We may think we’re just reacting logically to an unpleasant situation, but we’re actually entering into a demonic spiritual state. Surrendering to dread is surrendering to the devil.

After 40 years of wandering in the desert because they rebelled against God and hadn’t entered the Promised Land as God had commanded them, Moses reminded the Israelites of the day they’d stood on the border of their land — still inhabited by strong cities and giant men — and of the words that God had spoken. Different Bible versions use “be terrified” or “fear,” but the King James Version hits the nail on the head saying, “Then I said unto you, dread not, neither be afraid of them.” (Deuteronomy 1:29) Dread not, even though they’re huge, even though their cities are fortified and you’re just a bunch of wandering, homeless ex-slaves. Dread not because I, the Lord, will fight for you. Case closed.

If we’re commanded not to dread, it’s because we can choose to reject it. But a feeling so domineering as dread has to be replaced by a conviction even more domineering. Dread has to be argued down by raw faith. God challenged His people to determine that none of the imposing fortresses or warriors of the Promised Land would be vanquished by their own strength. God would do it. It was His job. They only had to be determined, and obey. They couldn’t just ignore fear, doubt or worry, they had to throw it down and stomp on it. Dread is a demonic spirit of intimidation and the only way to destroy it is to do exactly what it doesn’t want you to do.

And then there’s the curious description that God has for Himself throughout the Old Testament. Malachi 4:5 (KJV) says, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord.” God calls Himself dreadful, says that we should dread Him, that the heathen dread Him, that our enemies will dread us. When it comes to God, dread is a positive spiritual force. The intense dread of the devil’s threats has to be transformed into an intense fear and awe for God. And godly dread is nothing like demonic dread. It doesn’t create weakness or defeat, but joy, love, strength, and an invincible holy bond between us and our Creator.   

Giving into the dread of the devil’s threats is bowing in submission to him. But holy dread as a response to God’s promises is a form of worship and surrender to His power. So how do we develop this holy dread for God? Check back tomorrow for the second half of this topic.  

You should not say, “It is a conspiracy,” concerning all that this people calls a conspiracy, neither fear their threats nor be afraid of them.  Sanctify the Lord of Hosts Himself, and let Him be your fear, and let Him be your dread.  Isaiah 8:12-13, MEV

Sunday, November 13, 2016

How to completely confuse the devil

I was asked this week about tips on how to remind yourself to tie up demonic forces every day. I answered that it has to become an integral part of our lives, even mixed into our worship, our devotions, the asking of requests, our thanksgiving—everything. If confronting the devil is seen as a to-do item on a prayer list, it’ll only happen during specified times in church services, or only when extremely stressful situations remind us of the need. If that’s the case, there’s not much of a difference between our faith and Christians who don’t even believe in spiritual warfare, and the fruit of our lives will be the same. I know a lot of our own church members who live in this mediocre state. 

I often see people in the process of deliverance getting tangled up in old religious ideas. They have a false impression of what freedom in Christ is supposed to be like. They yearn for an emotional high, a sense of elation, and imagine that they’ll always be smiling and quoting the Bible and praying in tongues, and that miracles will instantly appear at their fingertips—kind of like a magical Disney character. This false expectation is so common, I have no doubt that it’s demonic—a hyped up illusion that eventually crashes into to disappointment and anger when it doesn’t come true. They completely forget that daily warfare is not an option, but a lifestyle. It’s just one more reason we keep hammering home the message of thinking faith, and not emotionalism.

When real spiritual warfare is going on, the authority of Jesus’ name is being used, and the power of God’s Spirit goes out to fight and destroy demonic forces according to our faith. This has nothing to do with us “manipulating” God or forcing Him to do what we want. It has everything to do with us obeying His commands. His weapons are meant for us to use according to His will, and He promises to accomplish His will through us as partners—weak, unworthy partners, but still partners. If we don’t use His weapons, we’re opting not to obey, as simple as that. But when we do use them, not only do miracles happen, but we grow closer and closer to God. As we fight darkness, His light floods into us. It’s a powerful way of honoring God while knowing that not one miracle that happens is from ourselves, but all are from Him. And in the middle of the battle is when we really get to know Him, we see a glimpse of His face, hear His voice, feel His arms around us and know without a doubt that we are victorious, safe and protected. It’s not an emotional high, it’s a deeper spiritual wisdom.

New Christians who are learning how to fight for their freedom can either grab this concept and go all the way, or they can take a longer, more painful, confusing route. Fighting halfway is miserable and exhausting. Seeking deliverance as an addition to emotional religious habits doesn’t work. Hoping that your pastor will do all the fighting for you so you can go on with your slightly more cleaned up life, won’t bring complete freedom, and it doesn’t do you any good to complain to God that the process is too hard. 

“But when I rebuke the devil, he hits me back even harder! I’m tired of trying and getting attacked over and over!” One truth is important to understand. When you are fully devoted to God, not just in words or emotional wishes, but when the daily choices of what you do, think, and determine show that you are fully devoted to Him, you are hidden in Christ. Satan cannot find you. He can’t drag you down and accuse you anymore. You completely confuse him, and his tactics have no more power. He can be so convinced that he is about to win a huge victory, and at the last minute be left stunned at his defeat. He won’t be able to figure you out because you will be living in such an intense light of God, that he is blinded, and you are hidden.

This week I have seen Satan stunned and defeated and reeling in confusion. It brings me joy, but also a greater fear of how powerful and good our God is. We can’t afford to allow a single day to pass without engaging in God’s war. Don’t do it half-heartedly. Die to everything that is in the way of your total surrender to God, engage in this battle now and let His power hide you in His light.

If you then were raised with Christ, desire those things which are above, where Christ sits at the right hand of God.  Set your affection on things above, not on things on earth.  For you are dead, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life shall appear, then you also shall appear with Him in glory.   Colossians 3:1-4 MEV 

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Infatuated with yes-men?

“I don’t believe in dividers – I support uniters!” Sounds like a noble sentiment, but what does that even mean? Basically, “I only like people who tell me that I’m just fine!” 2 Timothy 4 teaches about that mentality, how the time will come when “people will not endure sound doctrine, but they will gather to themselves teachers in accordance with their own desires, having itching ears, and they will turn their ears away from the truth and turn to myths.”  

Everybody loves an uplifting quote on Facebook or a positive slogan. Here’s a popular one: “The best things come to those who don’t give up.” Logically that would mean an unemployed couch potato should never give up waiting around until a job dropped into his lap, and an abused wife should never leave her cheating husband no matter what. The encouragement of “don’t give up,” only applies if you’re doing the right things. If you’re not, your misery will become a bottomless pit. But who wants to be told they’re not doing the right thing?  

Micaiah was a prophet in Israel under King Ahab. Jehoshaphat, the king of Judah came to visit, and the two kings discussed how they ought to join forces to fight Syria. Jehoshaphat suggested that they ask God what they should do, so Ahab called up his 400 yes-men to prophesy. And as yes-men do, they all predicted victory and success, which King Jehoshaphat could tell was a pack of lies. Jehoshaphat asked if Ahab had any real prophets of God. Ahab’s response said it all: “There is still one man, Micaiah the son of Imlah, by whom we can inquire of the Lord. But I hate him because he never prophesies good for me, but always evil.” (1 Kings 22)

Micaiah knew he was expected to regurgitate the happy slogans of the other prophets, but when he finally spoke for God, it was ugly and scary – but it was the truth. Sin and disobedience was rife in Israel and evil King Ahab would die if he went to war. Ahab refused to listen, and God’s word came true, just as Micaiah had said.  

The fallacy of today, is that we only want to hear about love and peace, about harmony and unity, about tolerance and acceptance, about sharing and embracing. Just meaningless sound bites. The world around us is infatuated with the “yes-men” of our days who spout off noble words, while anyone who speaks harsh truths is labeled as hateful, and divisive. A day is coming when a pastor who preaches that not all will be saved, that hell is a reality, that demons manifest and possess lives, that the only way to heaven is through salvation in Jesus – will be condemned as divisive and evil. The world is heading in the direction when it will be a crime to speak God’s truths, and that day is coming sooner than we think.  

Don’t be discouraged when you speak up for God and His truth and find that you offend or infuriate people. A real servant of God doesn’t go out of his way to offend, but neither does he shy away from the truth, which offends those who are determined to serve the gods of this world. Happy slogans are worthless without the brutal reality of the spiritual battle we are in. Jesus is the Prince of Peace, yet He bought our peace through the shedding of His blood. We have the promise of eternal life, but it comes at the price of the death to our flesh and daily picking up our cross to follow Him. If you find yourself hated because you are the only one in your group of friends that holds onto God’s truth, consider yourself blessed. Truth may be painful, but it leads to life.  

Yes, and everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution.  But evil people and impostors will flourish. They will deceive others and will themselves be deceived.  But you must remain faithful to the things you have been taught. You know they are true, for you know you can trust those who taught you.  2 Timothy 3:12-14 MEV

Sunday, November 6, 2016

The Keeping of Oaths

In this climate of corruption and lies in politics, business and finance, we’ve become calloused to promises of leaders in our world. They’ve become meaningless as grand speeches unravel with scandalous revelations in the news. There has been such a glut of scandals lately that it’s almost impossible to absorb and process it all—our default setting has now become, “So what next, they’re all a bunch of liars!”

When Joshua and the armies of God were fighting to take possession of the Promised Land, God gave him specific instructions (Exodus 23) not to make any treaty with the people who were living in that land. The entire land was meant for them, and they were to be strong and courageous in His might, to take it for themselves. But after they had overcome much of the territory of the Promised Land, the Gibeonites were afraid of Israel, and decided to be crafty.  They dressed up as poor travellers from a distant country, came to Joshua, and lied about who they were. They showed them their dried out bread and worn out clothes, and convinced Joshua to make a covenant with them, and that they would serve Israel forever. The Bible says that Joshua and his leaders forgot to consult the Lord, and so they were deceived into making a covenant against God’s wishes. 

In a situation like that, many of us would imagine that a covenant made on false pretenses wouldn’t hold. The deal would be off. But even when Joshua and his mighty men realized they’d been fooled, the vow had to stand. The Israelite soldiers were furious and wanted to kill them, but a vow was a vow. Their promise before God was not a thing to be toyed with or scrapped. So the Gibeonites gratefully became their manual laborers instead of having to fight against God’s people, and that arrangement was honored for generations. 

Fast-forward to around 400 years later when God tells King David that Israel has been suffering a three-year famine because bloodthirsty King Saul had killed the Gibeonites before he died. The ancient vow had been broken, giving the devil permission to ravage all of Israel with drought and death. The strange response to this problem was for David to ask the remaining Gibeonites what they wanted done to make the problem right again. They asked for the lives of seven of Saul’s sons, and David agreed. Two of Saul’s sons from a concubine, plus five sons from his former wife Michal (who had mocked David when he had worshipped God) were handed over to the Gibeonites, who hung them all. Saul’s concubine mourned and repented for the sins of Saul and his sons in breaking that vow, and God poured down rain to end the famine. In other words, the evil of that broken vow was alive in the hearts and minds of those sons, and had to be cast out. Ending their lives, ended the curse on Israel. That was how seriously God treated vows, and how seriously we must treat them today.

“So you’re saying that if I break a promise, God’s going to strike me and my children down with death?” I’m saying that what we solemnly declare in faith, before God, has spiritual implications that run far deeper than we realize. Breaking vows gives the devil permission to attack us, even those we might have made hastily or with the wrong motives. Yes, God has made allowances for divorce in the Bible, but it’s a serious and painful process, even when done under God’s covering. But so many other vows are treated casually in this day and age that open doors for demonic attack, and people are oblivious to the cause of their problems and unanswered prayers.  

Ask yourself to see if you have vowed to be a faithful parent, but have failed your children out of selfishness and pride, if you’ve vowed to be faithful in your finances towards God, but have chosen to give only when it’s convenient, if you’ve vowed to abstain from gossip or self-promotion or ungodly behavior, but indulge in it now and then, or if you’ve vowed to obey God no matter what, when or where, but have chosen the comfortable route instead. God doesn’t send lightning bolts to strike us in judgment, but He does permit Satan to sift us when we reject His protection. Nations suffer these consequences, as well as individuals. We can only do so much to hold our leaders accountable these days, but we can make sure we honor our own vows beginning now.

When you make a vow to God, do not delay in fulfilling it because He has no pleasure in fools. Fulfill what you have vowed. Better it is that you do not make a vow than you make a vow and not fulfill it.  Do not let your mouth cause you to sin, and do not say before the messenger that it was an error. Why should God be angry with your words and destroy the work of your hands?  For when there is an abundance of dreams and futilities, then words increase too. Therefore it is God you should fear.   Ecclesiastes 5:4-7 MEV