Jerry Jones departed this life on Wednesday, May 13, 2020. He and I were appointed as elders together in Phoenix, Arizona in September of 2004. We became co-laborers together in the church and close friends in all settings. In a short time, I think both of us would have said that we were the best of friends. We had many things in common, including a love for nature sports like fishing, and also golf, although neither of us were great golfers. We shared many happy times having fun together. We shared many happy times serving together in God’s kingdom. We also shared some of the most challenging times in the church that I have ever faced. In going through those times, I have stated repeatedly that I wouldn’t have made it through them without Jerry. I do believe that to be absolutely true.
When Jerry’s dearly loved wife of 57 years called to tell me that Jerry was approaching death, my heart became very heavy, but my mind became very active. I thought about our times together and how I would describe him to those who didn’t know him or know him well. I thought back to a book I read about Jesus decades ago entitled, “Man of Steel and Velvet.” I don’t remember much about the book, but the title encapsulates the nature of Jesus perfectly.
I think of his confrontations of the Pharisees and other religious leaders who were leading people astray from God’s will. Jesus was clearly a man of steel on those occasions. I think of him as a man of velvet in his dealings with women and children. His relationship encounters those of that day displayed both of these extremes and showed every needed response in between. He was the most beautiful demonstration of both strength and sensitivity possible.
Jerry reminded me of Jesus as a person of both steel and velvet. During our church challenges, he had a steely, unwavering character. He was an old navy career man, and it showed. Yet, that part of his nature had been sanctified by his conversion to Christ. He wasn’t at all harsh, but he was unyielding when it came to doing what was right and needed. In the middle of the storms, he was simply unflappable. I’ve known few like him. In spite of his deep love for people, he never caved in to sentimentality. He was just determined to do what was righteous in spite of possible responses and reactions.
He and Karen were retired when he was appointed an elder, and they chose to come to the ministry staff meetings as if they were on staff. What a blessing that was! Jerry could read people like a book. His level of emotional intelligence had perhaps begun as “street smarts,” but was molded by his Christian perspective. The spiritual battles we faced in the early part of this century were extremely challenging, but Jerry was always up to the challenge. He was my rock on many occasions and my greatest supporter in the leadership roles in which I served. I had no one else quite like him.
Jerry and Karen became Christians later in life in somewhat of a unique way. Their daughter was the first in their family to be converted and she then reached out to her brother. Jerry and Karen attended the baptism of their son and were deeply moved by all that they saw and heard. They had not been particularly religious prior to that, but the impact of what they were observing in their children and their friends was huge. Jerry and Karen studied the Bible and were baptized, full of their newfound faith and zeal. This led them to fast growth spiritually. They were all in with church activities and Bible study. In the latter area, Jerry made up for lost time and dug deeply into learning the Bible. He became an avid reader of spiritual books and I think read every one I have written.
When we moved to Phoenix at the end of 2003, the church didn’t have an eldership, but the members were very urgent about the need to appoint some elders. The staff and non-staff opinion leaders had formed a group to act as an advisory council during this challenging time. They were a part of the elder appointment process by discussing and recommending possible candidates. Jerry’s name came up, but his relatively short experience as a Christian was seen as a possible deterrent to being appointed in a short timeframe. In a context dealing with the qualification of elders, 1 Timothy 3:6 warns against appointing new converts, because pride might be a problem for them. However, as those of us on staff discussed it, Jerry’s obvious humility ruled out our concerns in this area. As a result, Jerry was appointed with four others of us as the first eldership in Phoenix was established. Thank God that he was!
Jerry’s velvet side was seen in a number of ways. Like Jesus, he was very sensitive to women and children, and to men who needed that sensitivity. He and Karen made two trips to the Philippines with us, serving in many ways. Both of them facilitated groups for a very large Dynamic Marriage training session that I was leading. The rigorous schedule just about did us all in, but the Jones did a great job and endeared themselves to the churches in the Philippines.
On one occasion, we visited a HOPE Worldwide complex that housed a large group of children who had been abused in every way possible. When we arrived at the site, we were carefully informed that due to the abuse the children had suffered, they would probably be hesitant to relate to us in a normal, relaxed manner. Of course, the explanation made all the sense in the world. However, Jerry’s spirit was perceived immediately by the children, and the young ones were crawling all over him from the beginning, just like he was Santa Claus. I have some heart-warming photos from that special day. But that was Jerry for you.
Jerry and Karen were the coordinators for regular trips to an orphanage in Agua Prieta, Mexico just over the border of Arizona. This was a labor of love for them for many years and watching how the kids there responded to Jerry was about the same as the kids in the Philippines. Jerry was the man of steel and velvet, a man among men, full of the Spirit of Jesus. This unique blend of strength and sensitivity made Jerry one of the most unique elders I have ever worked with and it made him one of my trusted allies and closest friends. His spirit was infectious and his heart for God and people was large. He was dearly loved by his devoted wife, his children and grandchildren, and by his spiritual family. Thank you, God, for blessing us all with such a man! Go with God, my brother!
In the year 2020 the focus of my biblical studies has been the role of culture, first in understanding the biblical text, and second, in application to the 21st century world in which we live. This is an endeavor of a decade or a lifetime, not a year, but because I have felt it to be a major gap for me, I am making this my focus for at least this year. Valuable resources for getting a better understanding of culture to understand the biblical text have been books by N.T. Wright, Kenneth Bailey, Walter Brueggemann, and the Bema Discipleship lessons – all helpful in getting historical, cultural, and Jewish context. This is a work in progress, and I am not writing with a special expertise, only an increased awareness.
As I wrote in another article, “Do You Get It?”( http://gordonferguson.org/articles/do-you-get-it-by-jim-mccartney/), I have a nagging sense that I am missing something important due to my many biases as an upper middle class, western, educated, older white man. Consequently, I am continually observing the integrity of my efforts to follow Jesus, striving to balance grace and the expectation of a high moral/ethical standard. While doing so, I cannot help but think about the extent to which I am influenced by the culture, place and time in which I live, and how that often is an undertow to my heart’s desire to love God. Additionally, I consider the role of the church today, and how it is to interact with the 21st century culture to which it ministers.
The goal of this article is to explore the role of the church in addressing issues of social justice. I hope to open the door wider for dialogue and exploration of the many specifics issues only mentioned here which deserve greater thought and consideration. Again, I am not an expert, and only hope to stimulate a broad audience to engage a critical conversation.
“He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” – Micah 6:8 (all quotes are from the New International Version, 2011)
Justice and acting justly is a major theme in the Old Testament text and Americans, especially, can completely misunderstand it. The Hebrew word, Mishpat, implies not so much a punitive justice (the punishment fits the crime) but a restorative justice, a making things right again. Compare and contrast the American judicial system with working out a conflict in a family caused by a wrongdoing. The judicial system is primarily designed to determine guilt or innocence and then to punish the guilty. In the family, however, the goal is to work things out and restore the harmony that existed before the wrongdoing. Mishpat, restorative justice, is the latter; it is a making things right again: in the family, in the community, in the nation, and in the world.
With the good creation of Genesis 1-2 as a perpetual context, God acted through history to create a justly ordered people, a community of his that would model his desire for all of creation. Because of the undertow of human selfishness, the Old Testament is filled with grace, guidance, (yes, some punishment), a perpetual call to righteousness (right relationships, with God and each other) and justice.
Consider the following scriptures that are highlighted in this video on Justice by the Bible Project (https://youtu.be/A14THPoc4-4) which is about six minutes in length :
“Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy” – Proverbs 31:8-9
“He is the Maker of heaven and earth, the sea, and everything in them – he remains faithful. He upholds the cause of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets prisoners free, the Lord gives sight to the blind, the Lord lifts those who are bowed down, the Lord loves the righteous. The Lord watches over the foreigner, and sustains the fatherless and the widow, but he frustrates the ways of the wicked.” – Psalm 146:6-9
“This is what the Lord says: Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place.” – Jeremiah 22:3
Reading the Old Testament there is a continual call to take care of the orphan, widow, foreigner/alien, and the poor and needy. Righteousness and justice depended on it.
The Jewish people, however, could never get it right and hold it together for very long. God went to great lengths to redeem and restore his people between the Genesis 1 and Matthew 1 but ultimately it could only be done in Jesus. Through Jesus’ life, teaching, death, and resurrection, God could make things right again.
“You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” – Romans 5:6-8
Jesus inaugurated his ministry in the synagogue of his hometown, Nazareth, by reading the following from Isaiah 61:1-2 and 58:6:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
As the promised Messiah and suffering servant, Jesus in his earthly ministry was continually caring for the poor and needy, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Jesus cared about both the body and the soul, and he demonstrated the righteousness and justice that God had been calling his people to all along. He did it right. Reading the gospels, it is amazing how much Jesus attended to the physical needs of people, elevated the status of women, and extended his ministry to those who were culturally avoided or ignored, the tax collectors and “sinners.” He also spoke to the ways that various segments of the Jewish people had assimilated to the Greek and Roman cultures and/or missed the major points in God’s desire for Mishpat, a justice that would make things right.
While dying, Jesus showed God’s love and mercy by meeting the needs of his mother, his disciple, John, and the repentant thief, and his death provided the sacrifice for our sins and the means to be restored to a right relationship with God. Then, through the promised Holy Spirit and the community of the early church, the good news of the kingdom and God’s grace was proclaimed throughout the Jewish communities and out to the Gentiles which had always been God’s plan promised to Abraham:
“I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” – Genesis 12:2-3 (emphasis added)
In the words of the Bible Project video, the early church was comprised of disciples of Jesus who had received undeserved righteousness and were seeking righteousness and justice for others.
The earliest Christians were known for their love and for their care of those in prison (Christian or not), the orphans and the widows, imitating the life of Jesus. Making things more right for those who were hurting and oppressed (justice) was part of the church’s mission. But with time, many Christians came to believe that our lives on earth don’t matter much. The focus of the church narrowed to obedience, forgiveness, and preparation for a future state of disembodied spirits in heaven. And this opened the door to a sad chapter in Christendom characterized by abuses of power, oppression, and an appetite for violence. The church lost its distinctiveness, conformed to the culture of its age, and gave up on God’s desire for Mishpat.
Fortunately, over time, the Holy Spirit worked through various reformation and restoration movements to call Christendom back to God’s heart for his people. But again, because of human selfishness and the pulls of culture, the history of the church, not unlike the Old Testament history, has been full of fits and starts.
21st Century Christian Church
So, how are we doing today?
First, the “we” is problematic because there is so much diversity of teaching and practice among modern Christians in the most general sense of the word Christian. For this writing I will narrow the “we” to those who honor the biblical text, strive to follow Jesus, and practice Christian community – still broad, but a bit narrower!
The dominant culture and world view of the 21st century western world has been heavily influenced by the Greco-Roman, Hellenistic world view. The importance of education, entertainment, and athletics dominate our leisure, economy, and lifestyle. We have also borrowed the concept that God exists to serve us rather than the other way around. The prosperity gospel and prayers dominated by asking God for things reflects this cultural influence. Add to the mix western individualism, and spirituality becomes much more about the individual than the community. We have also borrowed from Aristotle that our souls can live separately from a body and ultimately will congregate in an ethereal heaven (or hell) in a disembodied state. This has led to all kinds of weird thinking about Christianity and life on planet Earth, from the problems I discussed above in church history, to challenges in today’s modern church.
I would now like to focus on a text a friend and the editor of this article, Lai-Yan Faller, reminded me of from Jesus’ model prayer:
“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” – Matthew 6: 9-10
Jesus asks us to pray that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. While we are here, we pray with a desire to bring heaven to earth. This is consistent with the promise of Genesis 12 that through God’s people all peoples on earth will be blessed. The kingdom and the church are described as a city set on a hill and the bride of Christ. The ministry of the modern church therefore should reflect the promise to Abraham and the ministry of Jesus, showing everyone how to do it right.
God cares about how we live here and now. If John Lennon understood God’s heart, he may have changed the lyrics of “Imagine” saying instead of imagine there’s no heaven, imagine heaven on earth. John was an atheist, but I think he had a legitimate complaint that those who called themselves Christians were so focused on a future heaven that they did not care enough about life on Earth.
Much of evangelical Christianity focuses on the individual’s freedoms and rights, reflecting a culture of western individualism. In addition, a philosophy that God helps those who help themselves may contribute to a lack of compassion for those who are disadvantaged. Pretty Hellenistic and not much Mishpat in this worldview.
Additionally, the church can be conflicted. There may be a reluctance to wade into the waters of social justice because it is deemed to be political, divisive, or disruptive to the church’s primary mission to get as many as possible to a future heavenly state.
Don’t get me wrong. I believe in the resurrection and a life after this one. And I believe that what we believe and how we live determines our next life.
On the other hand, I believe that how we live matters to this life. And how the church demonstrates Jesus matters to this life. We are to bring heaven to earth, to restore justice, to make things right today – which has been God’s heart from day one.
There is a cost to doing this. Jesus’ call to discipleship in Luke 9:23 is “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” Following Jesus’ example requires self-sacrifice and an undying devotion to being like him. As wonderful as it seems to be like him there will be a strong negative reaction from those who prefer the comfortable western and materialistic approach to Christianity and don’t want to be challenged to deal with their sin, inclusive of sexism and racism and all other forms of oppression.
In the early 1960’s my paternal grandmother’s brother, Carl Spain, a preacher, missionary, and college professor spoke to an audience of Christian ministers in the Churches of Christ. He called them out on racism, denouncing the segregation of churches and the lack of accepting black students to Christian colleges. He was strong while speaking up for the oppressed, and the reaction was not mild. He received the expected nasty calls and letters from those who disagreed, an attempt was made to bomb his house, and his life was threatened…by “Christians.” Ultimately change happened, but it was slow, and even today Christian churches are some of the most segregated communities (https://carlspaincenter.org/). I am fortunate to be part of a very multicultural church in Boston, but it is still quite rare.
Is it possible that the fear of reaction or persecution from those trapped in a cultural norm, Christian or not, causes us to prefer to fit in rather than practice justice? To be normal rather than like Jesus? To be selfish rather than selfless? To be more focused on speaking up for our rights than that rights of the oppressed?
What can the church do to practice Mishpat (restorative justice), to bring God’s kingdom and will to earth as it is in heaven, in the 21st century? This is a big question, and the task may seem daunting. Indeed, just as I personally am a work in progress, so is the church. Here are a few suggestions of steps we can take:
- Take care of the poor and the needy, as part of the mission of the church, and not relegate it to a voluntary contribution to a non-profit.
- Speak up for and take care of the orphan, widow, alien, and all who are oppressed; remaining in uncomfortable silence is neither acting justly (Micah 6:8) nor rescuing from the hand of the oppressor (Jeremiah 22:3).
- Address racism and sexism: set things right biblically.
- Meet the whole spectrum of spiritual, physical, and emotional needs of people – as Jesus did.
- Speak to God’s good creation and challenge greed and the normative values of economic empire and consumption.
- As the bride of Christ, be his partner and show him to the world. He is the answer and when disenfranchised baby boomers, millennials, and others see him clearly, unclouded by a corrupt western and materialistic culture, not only will fewer walk away from the church, but they will tell all their friends about Jesus. He is the way. He is our Mishpat.
- Pray and live that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
At the end of the day, how we live on planet earth matters today and how well we practice Mishpat will draw or repel many to or from God’s heavenly kingdom – on earth and in the resurrected life to come.
NOTE: This is the announcement I made on my Facebook page just after posting this article. I think it is important to read before reading the article itself. Here it is: “For the past two weeks, I have been working on an article that I believe God put on my heart. It delves deeply into the question of where God is in the midst of our current, ever-increasing health plague. The article is not a short and easy read, but rather a somewhat lengthy and complex one. It could not be otherwise, given the gravity and complexity of the topic. Therefore, unless you are willing to pay the price of reading it carefully and prayerfully, please don’t even start. I don’t want to be misunderstood and/or misquoted. But I do urge you to read it with those parameters in mind. Thank you.”
No doubt this question is being asked by millions of people in our world at this very moment. When calamity strikes, we humans want answers. Some aim their pained questions toward their governmental authorities. “Why hasn’t the government done more?” Why didn’t the government act more decisively much sooner?” “Why isn’t the government doing more right now?” These are common questions and probably relevant questions, but I can’t answer any of them. I am addressing a much bigger and more important question in this article.
Is the Coronavirus COVID-19 a judgment of God or not? Many similar questions are being directed toward him, in the hearts if not outwardly, and most of us with a Christian orientation are definitely asking them. Some of our questions are asked in a way that calls God into question. “Why doesn’t God stop this awful pandemic when we pray?” “Why would God allow this kind of suffering to go on when he could stop it?” “Where is God in this pandemic?”
God’s Nature and Human Nature
None of these questions have simple answers. God is in this plague with us in more ways than we imagine. Those who belong to his family in Christ can rest assured that we have not been forgotten and God wants us to cast our burdens on him (1 Peter 5:7). Those who are not yet in his spiritual family are still loved by him deeply and he wants them to seek a relationship with him through Christ. At times like these, a good starting place is to consider the nature of God and the nature of human beings. God is good, loving, merciful, forgiving, just, powerful and many other things. Does he gain any pleasure in the suffering of his creation? No, none at all. Then why does he allow it? That is the age-old question, is it not?
After the calamity of September 11, 2001, commonly referred to as 9/11, a Boston church college student at Suffolk University reported that one of his professors made this statement: “This proves that God doesn’t exist.” The professor called attention to an age-old dilemma, which is stated in some way similar to this by atheists: “If there is a loving, all powerful God, he wouldn’t allow such things to happen. So, if he exists, he is either not loving or not all powerful. Therefore, the best case is that he simply does not exist.”
Well, God does exist, a topic we will deal with later in the article when examining a biblical text in some detail. And yes, he is all powerful and all loving at the same time. In his power, he created the universe and all that is in it, with mankind being the highest order of that creation. When he created humans, he gave them a gift having extraordinary potential – potential for good and potential for bad. That gift, of course, was the freedom of choice. The choices we can make may be good or bad. The choices made by terrorists on 9/11 were obviously horrendously bad ones. But for God to block choices like those would be to reduce us to robots and that he will not do. He created us to have fellowship with him in both time and eternity, and such fellowship must be based on choice. Otherwise it is not love.
Thus, we see that although God’s nature is righteous in every way, man’s nature includes the ability to choose to be like God or like Satan. Sadly, human nature is always going to tend strongly toward the negative unless we choose to seek God and imitate him. Those who make that choice will be blessed and those who don’t will fail to be blessed. Those are the basic ground rules involved in what it means to be human. God loves us and wants us to be blessed, but we cast the deciding vote in the matter.
Wait a Minute!
You may be saying “Wait a minute!” about now. What does our human freedom of choice have to do with a pandemic that is infecting hundreds of thousands of people and killing thousands as of today (March 29, 2020) – and spreading exponentially at this very moment? Perhaps not much, although refusals to make good choices like obeying “shelter in place” directives could be noted. The bigger picture of how natural calamity and human choice may be related is a complex topic, but the foundation must be laid regarding the nature of God and the nature of humans.
God created the world as a preparation for an eternity with him, and cause and effect are a part of our world. If there were no cause and effect operating in the physical world, it would be difficult to understand its operation in the spiritual world. At this point, we could address how we have damaged our environment to the extent that natural calamities are much more likely, but we will save that discussion for another day.
Where is God in All This?
Let’s return to our question about where God is in all that we are experiencing right now. It is vital that we understand God’s place in this world and what occurs in it. In the broad sense, everything that happens does so with God’s knowledge and involvement. That involvement may take one of two forms: the direct or the indirect. Stated another way, he either causes something to happen or he allows it to happen. Nothing occurs without his permission, even the death of a little bird (Matthew 10:29). Further, God has both an ideal will and an allowed will. His ideal will is for us to seek him but his allowed will gives us the option of doing the very opposite.
Two passages in the Old Testament give us some insight into these two “wills” of God and how they work together. King David had a desire to number his fighting men, which was directly against the (ideal) will of God. In fact, David’s sin resulted in a plague that killed 70,000 Israelites. The motivation for his decision was attributed to both God and Satan. Read the following passages:
2 Samuel 24:1
Again the anger of the LORD burned against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, “Go and take a census of Israel and Judah.”
1 Chronicles 21:1
Satan rose up against Israel and incited David to take a census of Israel.
Of course, those who reject the inspiration of the Bible try to discredit it in any way possible. Pointing out assumed contradictions is one of their favorite approaches, and this example is understandably a primary one they use. What do we Bible believers do with these two verses? Easy answer (at least for me) – Satan was the primary promoter of the decision and God allowed him to do it. In that sense, God is said to have done it because he is in control of the universe through both his direct agency and indirect agency. This particular example is one of the best showing the difference between ideal will and allowed will. His ideal will was that David not number the people; his allowed will was that he number them.
Here are another couple of passages from the Old Testament that make the same point.
I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the LORD, do all these things.
Who can speak and have it happen if the Lord has not decreed it? 38 Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that both calamities and good things come?
We may find this concept confusing and maybe even distasteful, but we actually shouldn’t. The fact that God is ultimately in control of everything helps us to understand and accept passages like this one: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). Reading the remainder of Romans 8 adds a great deal to the concept expressed in verse 28. God can not only use the bad things in his overall plan for humanity but can use them to bless his people spiritually.
Naturalistic Explanations Available
Whether God is directly causing the present health challenge or simply allowing it is honestly a matter of conjecture. I don’t pretend to know the answer. God gives us evidence, but not in an overwhelming way that all but forces us to a conclusion. He insists that our positive responses to him remain in the faith realm. For example, the creation itself can be explained in a totally naturalistic way (without a Creator). As ludicrous as that actually is, many very intelligent people, including some scientists, accept it as fact.
However, human reason alone, in looking at the creation, should come to another conclusion – one that has God in the center of it. That is the precise argument found in Romans 1, which we will examine further later. The Psalmist had it right when he wrote: “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” In Psalm 19, the first six verses describe God’s general revelation through creation and the last eight verses describe his special revelation, Scripture. Thus, while God reveals himself and his spiritual truths, he does not do it in a way that overwhelms and forces conclusions.
And why is that important? It helps us weigh more carefully explanations that are simply naturalistic. They may be absolutely valid; possibly valid; or absolutely invalid. Sometimes the available evidence could be interpreted one way or the other, or possibly both ways in combination. As it relates to pandemics, human history is replete with them. I have a web page open as I write this, showing thirteen such pandemics that killed at least a million people, dating back to the Second Century AD. The greatest killer was the Black Death Bubonic Plague, dating between 1347 and 1351, which killed 200 million people (nearly half of Europe’s population). In the last century (the 1900’s), five pandemics are listed, with two of them being in the top five of the most deadly on record: the Spanish Flu of 1918-1919, killing 40-50 million, and the HIV/AIDS epidemic, which began around 1981 and continues, killing 25-35 million thus far. In our present century, this current Coronavirus outbreak is one of five pandemics listed.
So what is the bottom line of these facts and figures? Only that such health plagues infecting most of the world geographically have occurred throughout recorded history and may or may not be linked to a direct judgment of God. Only he knows. Even if they are not, surely God wants us to use all such calamities to motivate us to examine ourselves spiritually and to serve our fellow humans in their suffering. Don’t you expect that he wants us to take a much closer look at our morality and our materialism right now? Our early brothers and sisters in the third century were known for loving each other and serving those affected by a destructive plague in their day. Non-believers did the exact opposite. We currently need to heed the example of those early disciples. It is the way of Jesus.
Not Done Yet
This article could have ended with that last sentence. But we are not done with this serious subject just yet. How this present virus may relate to a direct judgment of God needs more examination. Here is what we can know for sure. God hates sin and God punishes sin. As Peter put it, God is very patient in his desire that people come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9). Thus, we cannot know exactly when that patience is going to reach its limit and bring about Divine judgment. That being said, one particular passage in the New Testament gives us very strong markers about when a nation is going to be severely punished by God. That passage invites a very close look and a very serious examination. Here is the opening verse of it:
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness,
The wrath of God – what a beginning! Most people disdain any consideration of God’s wrath, including many professed Christians. However, the Bible is full of it, from Genesis to Revelation. God’s love is perfect, but so is his justice. At least five types of his wrath can be identified in Scripture.
Wrath in Five Forms
First, we have eternal wrath, the consequences of ending up in hell. The scariest part of this type is that most people on planet earth are going to experience it after they die. Matthew 7:13-14 could not be clearer in describing the “few” who find the narrow road leading to life and the “many” who follow the broad road leading to destruction. I’m sure Jesus must have spoken these words with a very heavy heart, but he said more about hell than the rest of the Bible combined.
Second, we have eschatological (end-time) wrath, that associated with the second coming of Jesus and the end of the world as we now know it. The Book of Revelation provides the most detail about this wrath, and although I thoroughly reject most popular interpretations of Revelation, we can all agree that God’s wrath is in the middle of whatever transpires. In any case, severe judgments come against the earth’s inhabitants in the end-time.
Third, we have consequential wrath, the cause and effect nature of life itself. We reap what we sow in the spiritual and behavioral realms. As creatures of choice, good choices bring good results and bad choices bring bad results. The plan of Satan is to keep us looking at short-term benefits rather than long-term ones. He works very much like our modern credit system – buy now and pay later. His vote is for us to sin now and pay later. God’s vote is for us to live in a way that ensures long-term benefits, so it is pay upfront and reap the rewards later.
Fourth, we have cataclysmic wrath, which includes both natural disasters and man-made ones. The calamitous events of 9/11 fall into this category as does COVID-19. Sin most likely has some relationship to all of it but figuring out exactly how is to entertain a question with an uncertain answer. After looking deeper into Romans 1, you may well end up believing that there is a connection. I’m inclined to think so myself, but as I said, the answer to how cataclysms relate to God’s direct judgment is uncertain.
Fifth, we have the wrath of abandonment, a wrath described in the remainder of Romans 1 following verse 18. God will abandon an individual, a group of individuals or a nation. The Old Testament warns those in living then that such will be the case unless repentance occurs and then describes multiple times when the warning is not heeded and judgment comes. Both the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah were eventually taken into captivity. The level of pain and suffering accompanying both events was almost unbelievable.
God’s Promise of Abandonment
Many examples of abandonment can be found in the Bible. If you want to study those examples further, look at Judges 10:11-14, Judges 16:18-21; Hosea 4:17-19 and Matthew 15:14. Without question, the most detailed treatment of this topic in the entire Bible is likely Proverbs 1:23-33. Read it carefully.
Repent at my rebuke! Then I will pour out my thoughts to you, I will make known to you my teachings. 24 But since you refuse to listen when I call and no one pays attention when I stretch out my hand, 25 since you disregard all my advice and do not accept my rebuke, 26 I in turn will laugh when disaster strikes you; I will mock when calamity overtakes you – 27 when calamity overtakes you like a storm, when disaster sweeps over you like a whirlwind, when distress and trouble overwhelm you. 28 Then they will call to me but I will not answer; they will look for me but will not find me, 29 since they hated knowledge and did not choose to fear the LORD. 30 Since they would not accept my advice and spurned my rebuke, 31 they will eat the fruit of their ways and be filled with the fruit of their schemes. 32 For the waywardness of the simple will kill them, and the complacency of fools will destroy them; 33 but whoever listens to me will live in safety and be at ease, without fear of harm.
When I read this passage and others like it, I think back to the time of the great flood and Noah’s ark. I can imagine people screaming and begging to be let into the ark as the flood waters rose. I can picture mothers holding up their babies and small children, pleading with Noah to at least save the little ones. But it was all to no avail, for they had sinned away the day of grace. God had abandoned them to the consequences of their own sinful choices.
The Causes of Abandonment
Romans 1 describes the sad condition of the Gentile nations in the first century and says three times that he had given them over, or abandoned them. They had passed the point of no return and without genuine repentance, they would fall without remedy as individuals and as nations. None of the nations from that era remain. All have fallen and lie dead in the pages of history. The same is going to be true of every nation in existence today, including America. The question is not “if” – it is only “when.” We are clearly at or very near the point at which God abandons a nation, which will become obvious as we look at the text more closely. As a young preacher many years ago, I recall older preachers saying that if God didn’t punish America, he would owe an apology to Sodom and Gomorrah. They could not have imagined those decades ago how far our society has fallen, along with the multiplicity of nations we have influenced to do the same.
Romans 1:19-20 make it clear that the existence of God is unmistakably shown through his creation. Only an idiot could believe that all that we see and are came about without a Creator. One of the most famous atheists of the last century, Anthony G.N. Flew (whom I once heard in debate with one of my graduate school professors), finally renounced his atheism after studying DNA structure in all of its intricacies. As multitudes have realized, something this complex could never have appeared without due cause and that Cause was God. The mathematical probabilities rule out any other possibilities.
Let’s look at the progression of sin into its final stages. Paul said three times that God gave the Gentiles over. Read carefully what the final stages were that brought about this abandonment.
Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. 25 They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen. 26 Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. 27 In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error. 28 Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. 29 They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; 31 they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. 32 Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.
Sinful desires led to sexual impurity (moral uncleanness) and to the degrading of their bodies with one another. The word for impurity is often used to denote lust and unchecked lust leads to physical actions. The Bible is clear about how sex is to be viewed and practiced. It is to be enjoyed only in a marriage relationship between a man and a woman. Premarital sex or extramarital sex is taught against in both the Old Testament and the New. But that is not what Paul witnessed in the first century.
Here is a further description of what he saw, in Ephesians 4:19: “Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, and they are full of greed.” Peter wrote something quite similar in 2 Peter 2:14: “With eyes full of adultery, they never stop sinning; they seduce the unstable; they are experts in greed – an accursed brood!” Note in both passages the connection between the lack of morality and the presence of materialism. More must be said about this oft-mentioned connection as we proceed.
Can anyone doubt that we live in a pornographic age? Adult film stars are treated with the same respect by entertainment media as are other entertainers. The statistics of the pornographic world are almost unbelievable. The age at which boys and girls first start looking at porn, the percentages of those in all age groups who indulge in it, and most shockingly, the percentages of professed Christians who frequent pornographic sites – all nearly unbelievable. I started looking up stats and just shut down the search engine. They are sickening. In addition, advertisements are filled with suggestive photos of women. If you use the internet, you cannot escape them. The only alternative is to avoid looking at those sidebars and popups, a near impossibility. Pornography alone should be enough to bring about the judgment of Almighty God!
And then we have the sexual revolution in its mature stages. That revolution began in the 1960s and has blossomed in almost every conceivable way. I remember the first time a couple came to me who were living together and asked me to perform their wedding. They were not in our church, in case you were wondering. They just saw our church building and came in with their request. I agreed to do the wedding on the condition that they would study the Bible with me. They did, but to no avail. In the course of the study, I asked what their parents thought about them living together without being married. They said that both sets of parents were fine with it, but were also happy to see them get married.
I remember watching a talk show in the airport while I was waiting for a flight some decades ago. The show had a live audience, as most such shows do. One of the persons being interviewed said that they believed that sex outside marriage was wrong, prompting the audience to hoot and holler for a long time. Since I didn’t then or now make a practice of watching such shows, that reaction was shocking to me. A person today will be mocked by most if they say they plan to wait for sex until married (think Tim Tebow). But dare they express a belief that premarital sex is actually sinful, they can count on getting an earful.
I know that I am entering politically incorrect territory here. I also know that I am entering very sensitive territory for some of my brothers and sisters in Christ, for two reasons. One, we heterosexual folks have friends inside and outside the church who are homosexually oriented and we don’t want to be offensive. I understand. I’m in that same boat with you. To make it perfectly clear, I am not addressing same sex attraction, but same sex actions. I have the utmost respect, love and appreciation for those like Guy Hammond (Strength in Weakness Ministries) who live righteously with same sex attraction. They don’t know how they got that attraction and wish they didn’t have it. I feel for them as they battle in a way that I can’t fully understand. I know about my temptations to lust, but the stigmas and shame attached to their desires are in another category altogether.
What I do know is that the Bible condemns same sex actions. Homosexuality is sin and in the Romans text, seems to be a step deeper into the sin pit. This sin is called shameful and unnatural, ushering in what Paul called the “due penalty for their error.” Is that talking about HIV/AIDS, many people wonder? In spite of the fact that it began forty years ago and is still growing, it is already the fifth largest pandemic in history, having claimed upwards of 35 million lives. The homosexual roots and spread of this awful disease are well documented, although it can be contracted in other ways.
Those with same sex attraction have to control their actions if they want to please God, and many such as Guy are able to redirect their desires enough to enjoy successful marriages. They are my heroes. As I said earlier, they didn’t ask to be “gay,” as popular terminology styles it. But think about this: those who have sexual attractions toward children didn’t ask for their orientation either. Some with that malady are also avoiding ungodly sexual actions, although most perhaps aren’t. It just seems odd to me that we can show disgust and disdain toward those battling these desires and feel justified in doing so, and yet show compassion toward those with homosexual attractions.
In either case, the actions are sinful and pedophilia is also unlawful. Homosexual practices were for many years also unlawful in America, and still are in some countries. My point is that while unnatural desires put into practice are unquestionably sinful, the ones who are abstaining from actions because of their spiritual convictions need love too. The homosexual community appealed for toleration for decades and once they received it, they appeal for acceptance and finally, for approval and agreement. Those are different things. Christians should offer both toleration and love, toleration because we live in a country that grants the right of homosexual activity, and love because we are Christians. I cannot offer approval or agreement because God doesn’t, although he loves and longs for repentance on their parts. So do I and surely, so do you.
Every Kind of Wickedness
Sin is spiritual cancer. It does not lie dormant but rather grows and picks up speed as depravity increases. Let me drop in those last five verses again here:
Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. 29 They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; 31 they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. 32 Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.
Most of these sins prompted by depraved minds (where logical thinking no longer functions) are self-explanatory. The Greek term translated in verse 31 as “no love” is a word meaning without family love, one of the most natural types of love imaginable. The nature of this sin provides some understanding of how millions and millions of abortions have been performed in recent years, a practice approved by a majority and viewed as murder by a minority (which includes me).
Another term is mentioned that we understand as far as its basic definition is concerned, but we have little understanding of the magnitude of this sin in God’s sight. That term is greed. We have already noted its inclusion along with sexual sins in Ephesians 4:19 and 2 Peter 2:14. One of the most striking usages of the word is found in 1 Corinthians 5 where Paul is commanding the church to withdraw fellowship from an immoral person. Note what he includes in the sin list requiring church discipline. “But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people” (1 Corinthians 5:11).
In our materialistic culture, we have become all but blind to this sin. We have ignored it, rationalized it and excused it, but rest assured that God has not. I have no doubts that our present health crisis has as one of its primary Divine purposes to force us to examine our materialistic greed. If you think I am overstating the magnitude of this sin, along with sexual immorality of all types, just listen to Jesus on the topic in a passage specifically dealing with our view and use of money. His words were directed toward respected religious leaders of that day.
“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” 14 The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus. 15 He said to them, “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of others, but God knows your hearts. What people value highly is detestable in God’s sight.
Hello America! What are our two greatest concerns right now in our crisis? Health to the point of potential loss of life, and loss of money – the economy. I promise to write a separate article soon and post it on my website. Its title will be, “Greed and Its Root of Materialism.” Watch for it!
Verse 32 sheds some light on several important points. One, people know inherently the basic morality expected by God. Romans 2 describes this knowledge as a law of conscience. Yes, one’s conscience can be hardened by repeatedly refusing to heed it, but unless you are a psychopath, it is never disengaged entirely. In the deepest recesses of our hearts, we know something of our Creator’s expectations in the realm of basic morality.
Two, these sins deserve spiritual death. We sense that reality at a deep level. The fear of death is linked to this sense more than to simply a fear of the unknown. We somehow feel the realness of a Reckoning Day when we will meet God as the Judge of all mankind. This explains why Paul could in only a single sermon, speaking to idolaters who had no recognizable knowledge of the true God, yet speak of the Judgment Day (Acts 17:31). Humans instinctively know somewhere in the recesses of their soul that they will face their Creator. They were created in his likeness and that instinctiveness is evidently built-in to their very nature.
Three, since in their depravity they continue to violate their consciences, they cheer on others doing the same. They want to believe that there will be safety in numbers. If “everyone is doing it,” surely they won’t be held accountable. The people of Noah’s day might well shed some light on that one. The majority is always wrong when it comes to following God’s righteousness and might (numbers) doesn’t make right. So, in looking at this principle, is America fully here? One example should suffice to provide the answer.
Bill Clinton was impeached while serving as our president back in December of 1998. Despite the fact that he was only the second President in U.S. history to be impeached by the House of Representatives, President Bill Clinton received a 73% job approval rating from the American public after his impeachment. This was the highest rating of his administration, and one of the higher job approval ratings given any president since the mid-1960s. He was clearly guilty of sexual immorality in the White House itself, using what the MeToo Movement would now call his power of position and authority to take advantage of a young woman. While sincere Christians were shocked and outraged, most Americans were anything but. Why? The answer is in Romans 1:32.
Scientific Evidence for the Fall of Nations
When I was a young minister, I heard two striking statements a number of times that stayed in my memory banks. One I’ve already mentioned, that if God doesn’t punish America, he will owe an apology to Sodom and Gomorrah. We will classify that one under the heading of preacher talk for now. The second statement was about a very in-depth study done by a scientist who studied ancient civilizations. I remembered his name and his bottom-line conclusions as they related to sexual immorality. Through the years, I tried to research that study but for whatever reason, couldn’t locate it. Recently, a post on Facebook helped me to find it. Essentially, the findings tracked almost exactly what a Bible student would expect.
The study was entitled “Sex and Culture,” written after a lifetime of research by Oxford social anthropologist J.D. Unwin. The 600+ page book is, in Unwin’s words, only a “summary” of his research. He stated that seven volumes would be required to lay it all out. His writings suggest he was a rationalist and not a religious person, believing that science is our ultimate tool of inquiry. Unwin published his findings in 1936, long before the sexual revolution occurred in the West.
The article I read which summarized his findings was entitled, “Why Sexual Morality May be Far More Important than You Ever Thought,” written by Kirk Durston and posted on his blogsite. I will be using significant quotes from that article, which is based on Unwin’s research conclusions. Basically, Unwin’s findings showed that when strict prenuptial chastity was abandoned, absolute monogamy, deism, and rational thinking disappeared within three generations of the change in sexual freedom.
Let’s unpack each of these concepts. The abandonment of prenuptial chastity would include premarital sex and living together without being married at all. Absolute monogamy gave way to what is termed modified monogamy. Durston’s comments about that are as follows:
Common-law relationships are becoming the norm. Although divorce occurred prior to the 1970’s, the mainstream of our culture still maintained the view that marriage should be for life, and common-law relationships were regarded with some distaste. That has clearly changed. Those who actually practice life-long commitments in marriage have become the minority, with couples born prior to the sexual revolution much more likely to maintain a life-long commitment in marriage.
In describing the loss of deism, or belief in God, he had this to say:
Prior to the 1960’s, a combination of rationalism and a belief in God was the norm for mainstream culture. Not only has belief in God greatly decreased since the 1960’s, but there has been a trend to remove the concept of God from government, the educational system, and the public forum. Those who still believe in God sense a strong societal pressure to keep deistic beliefs private.
Finally, his comments about the disappearance of rational thinking describe what we call Postmodern thinking, clearly the prevailing type of thinking in our younger generations.
The swiftness with which rational thinking declined after the 1970’s is astounding. In its place arose post-modernism, characterized by “skepticism, subjectivism, or relativism” and “a general suspicion of reason.” But it gets worse … post-modernism is giving way to “post-truth”. In direct contrast to rational thinking, a post-truth culture abandons “shared objective standards for truth” and instead, stands on appeals to feelings and emotions, and what one wants to believe. People can now “identify” themselves as something which flat-out contradicts science and rational thinking and, in many cases, receive the full support and backing of governments and educational systems. Not only do people feel they have a right to believe what they want, but any challenge to that belief, even if supported by truth and logic, is unacceptable and offensive.
The statements I recall hearing as a young man about Unwin’s conclusions often included a comment about homosexuality. It went something like this: “When any nation accepts homosexuality as behavior approved as normal, that nation is in its last stage before collapse.” One writer who had studied Unwin in far more detail than I have said that Unwin lumped this behavior in with all aspects of unbridled sexual immorality. Either way, I don’t have to tell you where America and other Western nations are in this regard.
In studying Romans 1, these current nations are right in the middle of the same sins as were the Gentiles of Paul’s day. How long it took for their nations to fall we leave for Unwin’s research to document, but combining his conclusions with Paul’s inspired ones sends chills up my spine.
My own conclusions about the question posed in the title of my article, “Is the Coronavirus COVID-19 a Judgment of God?” are as follows:
- I think the answer is “yes,” with explanation.
- The explanation includes the futility of trying to ascertain whether this judgment is a direct one or an indirect one. It doesn’t ultimately matter. God either caused it or allowed it.
- My study of the Old Testament shows clearly that any plague or natural calamity, whether locusts or sustained drought or any other calamity, was seen by the people of God as God’s discipline for their sins.
- Further, in those repeated occurrences, the call by the prophets was for repentance on the part of the people with the promise of God’s removal of the discipline upon their repentance.
- In my day of prayer and fasting last Thursday, I prayed multiple times on my knees for many needs I see in this current ordeal. The one final conclusion I ended up with time and time again was for enough repentance to occur to move God to intervene.
- Certainly I prayed for protection from the virus for myself, family, fellow disciples and other friends. But I must accept the fact that illness and suffering will likely affect us all randomly. I can get the virus just like anyone else, as can you. If suffering only happened to the unrighteous, the temptation to seek God for wrong reasons would be tremendously strong.
- At the end of each prayer, after expressing my sincere and strongly felt desires, I prayed what Jesus did in the Garden: “Nevertheless, not my will but yours be done.”
- Many of my friends have expressed what I have been thinking for the past several weeks. We have been surprised, even shocked, that something like COVID-19 hasn’t happened sooner. Looking at the depravity of our world through the lens of Romans 1 and many other similar passages, it should have been expected.
- As for me and my house, we are praying and repenting and begging all others to do the same. God is still in control and still responds to prayer and repentance. Let’s get on with it!
A Parting Thought
A few days ago (March 26, 2020), Robert Nicholson wrote an article entitled, “A Coronavirus Great Awakening?” I found the article on the Opinion page of the March 28 online edition of the Wall Street Journal. In it, he used illustrations from the Old Testament and World War II as examples of how cataclysms can move us to repent and return to God. I close with a rather lengthy, but exceedingly profound, section from that article.
Today the world faces another moment of cataclysm. Though less devastating than World War II, the pandemic has remade everyday life and wrecked the global economy in a way that feels apocalyptic.
The experience is new and disorienting. Life had been deceptively easy until now. Our ancestors’ lives, by contrast, were guaranteed to be short and painful. The lucky ones survived birth. The luckier ones made it past childhood. Only in the past 200 years has humanity truly taken off. We now float through an anomalous world of air conditioning, 911 call centers, acetaminophen and pocket-size computers containing nearly the sum of human knowledge. We reduced nature to “the shackled form of a conquered monster,” as Joseph Conrad once put it, and took control of our fate. God became irrelevant.
Who will save us now that the monster has broken free?
“Men may live to a great age in days of comparative quietness and peaceful progress, without ever having come to grips with the universe, without ever vividly realising the problems and the paradoxes with which human history so often confronts us,” Butterfield wrote. “We of the twentieth century have been particularly spoiled; for the men of the Old Testament, the ancient Greeks and all our ancestors down to the seventeenth century betray in their philosophy and their outlook a terrible awareness of the chanciness of human life, and the precarious nature of man’s existence in this risky universe.”
The past four years have been some of the most contentious and embarrassing in American history. Squabbling over trivialities has left the public frantic and divided, oblivious to the transcendent. But the pandemic has humbled the country and opened millions of eyes to this risky universe once more.
“Sheer grimness of suffering brings men sometimes into a profounder understanding of human destiny,” Butterfield wrote. Sometimes “it is only by a cataclysm,” he continued, “that man can make his escape from the net which he has taken so much trouble to weave around himself.”
For societies founded on the biblical tradition, cataclysms need not mark the end. They are a call for repentance and revival. As the coronavirus pandemic subjects U.S. hospitals to a fearsome test, Americans can find solace in the same place that Butterfield did. Great struggle can produce great clarity.
“The ancient Hebrews, by virtue of inner resources and unparalleled leadership, turned their tragedy, turned their very helplessness, into one of the half-dozen creative moments in world history,” Butterfield wrote. “It would seem that one of the clearest and most concrete of the facts of history is the fact that men of spiritual resources may not only redeem catastrophe, but turn it into a grand creative moment.”
Could a rogue virus lead to a grand creative moment in America’s history? Will Americans, shaken by the reality of a risky universe, rediscover the God who proclaimed himself sovereign over every catastrophe?
Few sins are as disgusting as ingratitude. A study of God’s dealings with mankind would surely demonstrate how strongly God thinks that this is indeed the case. We humans agree with his assessment—as long as we are observing a lack of thankfulness in the lives of others! However, we often appear fairly unaware of the depth of this problem in our own personal lives. If we can learn to see through the eyes of God, hopefully we can be moved to a consistent repentance of this sin of ingratitude and can become people of grace and thankfulness.
The fatal plunge of the first century world into degradation and perversion began with a loss of thankfulness toward God. Romans 1:21 makes the genesis of a downward spiral into disaster very clear: “For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts became darkened.” I have not written an article on gratitude simply because this makes us happier people or better people; I have written it because a scarcity of gratitude will most surely lead to our missing heaven. Our failure generally to appreciate the magnitude of the subject’s importance demonstrates just how effective Satan has been in deceiving us. Had our mother Eve not lost her appreciation for God and his wondrous grace, she would not have taken the fatal bite of forbidden fruit. Let’s not underestimate for a moment the vital nature of the study of this topic. It is paramount to our spiritual growth, gracious demeanor and to our eternal destiny.
Why do we lose our gratitude so easily? Several reasons come to mind rather quickly. One, we often have a shallow grasp of our own sinfulness. A good study of Romans 1-3 should help us deepen our convictions about the magnitude of our sin. Here, Paul is the Spirit’s tool to convict us of sin, righteousness and judgment (John 16:7-8). When I ponder sin, I think to myself, “The Best of Us Is a Mess.” And we really are a mess in comparison to Jesus Christ. However, we all too often measure ourselves by other people which makes us feel reasonably righteous in comparison. The more we see Jesus as he is and ourselves as we are, the more we are going to be grateful that God has reached down in mercy to such undeserving creatures.
Two, we are plagued with abysmally short memories. In 2 Peter 1, the apostle reminds us that a real understanding of God’s grace should move us to be growing continually. Peter views a failure to respond in this way as quite unnatural, no matter how common it may be: “he is nearsighted and blind, and has forgotten that he has been cleansed from his past sins” (2 Peter 1:9). The old adage “familiarity breeds contempt” is often true, even when the familiarity is with our Creator.
Three, ingratitude may simply trace back to a sinful heart that blocks the understanding—and therefore the appreciation—of spiritual realities. I remember times when I dealt with sin in my heart in a radical way (which for me means with much prayer, often accompanied by fasting). After such times my spiritual heart seems soft and sensitive, and the tears of appreciation flow easily. Thinking back to those moving experiences makes me marvel at how quickly the tenderness of heart can fade.
Four, a self-focused life certainly results in little thankfulness. My childhood years contributed to my self-focus. Although I was raised in a very blue-collar setting, without an abundance of money, we were comfortable, and I was given much of what I requested. In less kindly terms, I was spoiled (hopefully not permanently!). As a result, I characteristically respond to events in my life in a selfish way. When things go well for me, I think, Fine, that’s the way it should be. When things don’t go well for me, I react internally by thinking, “What is going on here?” I have served the Lord faithfully; this shouldn’t be happening to me! When I allow my sinful nature to lead me in this direction, I respond to blessings without much thankfulness and to challenges without much grace. Prayerfully, I have made lots of progress in changing these tendencies, but I must guard against them continually to avoid being an ingrate.
Five, a suspect picture of God is one of the more serious, yet subtle, culprits behind ingratitude. We develop our view of God from the most important authority figures in our lives, normally our fathers. If our fathers were beneficent, leaning toward permissiveness with us, we are likely to take God’s goodness for granted. If our fathers were distant or harsh, we are likely to view God in much the same way. And if we see him as impersonal, uncaring or demanding, we will misinterpret life’s blessings and challenges, remaining unaware of the bounty of his grace. The reality of who he is and what he does can be missed almost entirely. If we are like the one-talent man in Matthew 25, we will see him as a “hard” man (verse 24). If we are like the older brother in the Parable of the Lost Son, we will see him as a father who has done absolutely nothing for us (Luke 15:29). Astounding!
For everyone who decides to seek Jesus seriously, a study of the book of Romans is a must. When we begin to understand the God it portrays, we can be consistently motivated by gratefulness for his amazing grace. My book, “Romans: the Heart Set Free,” is a good resource for this study.
Whatever the cause of ingratitude, the cure is in taking the time to figure out life as God designed it to be, rather than life as Satan wants us to see it. Then the message will not be how soon we forget, but how often and deeply we remember the overwhelming goodness of our God. Let’s take this present season of thankfulness and truly count our blessings and live a life of genuine gratefulness and appreciation for all God has done for us.
“So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.” —Colossians 2:6-7
“Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful.” —Colossians 4:2
“Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe.” —Hebrews 12:28
“Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.” —Colossians 3:15
Aging and death are realities of life on planet earth, and those realities are viewed by virtually all of us as negative, usually very negative. From the perspective of 1 Corinthians 15:26, death is the last enemy to be destroyed at the general resurrection of the dead. The term “enemy” pretty well sums up how we view death, right? Aging is a necessary part of the process that culminates in death. We humans don’t enjoy aging with its attendant strains and pains, and we don’t enjoy thinking about our demise. Those are facts. Yet, is there another perspective that can change how we view those facts, making them seem less negative for sure and possibly even positive? That’s a very good question to ponder, don’t you think?
In 2016, Jeanie Shaw served as an author and editor of an amazing book entitled “An Aging Grace.” Using a number of older authors, important topics related to aging are covered in very biblical and practical ways. Younger people should read the book to help them deal with their older friends and relatives, and older people should read it to help prepare themselves for the inevitabilities coming their way. In my opinion, this book should be a “must-read” for all followers of Christ.
I wrote two chapters for the book and in the first of these, here were two sentences describing my initial reaction to the request to write them. “Jeanie Shaw, whose brainchild this book is, asked me to write two chapters: one about getting old and the other about dying. (She says the topic was “heaven,” but I heard “dying.”)… My initial reaction was “What? Why me? How did I get those two articles anyway? I hate getting old and I’m afraid to die!” I think the chapters ended up being good ones and it helped me to write them. But I have continued to think about aging and death as a person now in my upper 70’s. This present article describes my most profound thoughts on the subject at this point in my life.
Our Attachment to the Physical
We are attached to this physical world and we are attached because God made us to be. We were created to enjoy life on this earth. It offers amazing possibilities – some amazingly bad and some amazingly good. David described the good part in this way:
Come, my children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the LORD. 12 Whoever of you loves life and desires to see many good days, 13 keep your tongue from evil and your lips from telling lies. 4 Turn from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it.”
Peter quoted this passage in 1 Peter 3:10-12. Loving life in this physical body and desiring to see good days, many of them, is not wrong. In fact, it would be wrong to feel otherwise. James said that “every good and perfect gift is from above” (James 1:17) and that includes life in this physical world. That is why we should give thanks for every one of those good gifts that we enjoy while in this body. One of those obvious delights is food, created for our enjoyment and thanksgiving (1 Timothy 4:3-5), just like all other physical things that we call good.
Further, God made us to want to remain alive as long as possible. The Bible is full of examples showing that his righteous people fought hard to remain alive. Finding anyone who wanted to die at the moment is nearly impossible to do. Those who can be found were looking for an escape from intense suffering, although Paul seemed to be an exception in Philippians 1:21-23. But a closer examination of that context shows that although he knew death was better because he could be with Christ, he went on to say that he wanted to remain alive in order to fulfil his purpose of helping others. Add to that the fact that he had seen both a resurrected Jesus and the spiritual world beyond (2 Corinthians 12:1-7). He thus was given a perspective that we have to work hard to develop and then keep – by faith, not sight.
Paul knew that his purpose was to use his life to help others know and love God. Life on earth is a preparation for heaven, and finding purpose is a large part of that preparation. Discovering the answers to the biggest questions in life is a part of the process. Three of the biggest questions are these: where did I come from; where am I going; and what am I doing here? Humans instinctively search for the answers to these questions because of our very nature. We are made in the image of God and this makes our searches for meaning inevitable, because they actually comprise our search for him.
He wants us to search for our origin, which is him. He wants us to search for our destiny, which is with him. He wants us to search for our purpose, because it is our way of having fellowship with him in his mission for saving the people on this earth. Having a purpose of representing him to those people means that we want to live and not die until he knows that our purpose has been fulfilled. Acts 13:36 nails it: “Now when David had served God’s purpose in his own generation, he fell asleep…” Thus, wanting to stay alive and enjoy life is our designed nature. It is not necessarily a sign of being unspiritual or too attached to this world (although it can be).
That being said, a part of the right mixture is the anticipation of heaven and an “other-worldly” absence of the fear of death. Before Christ’s death and resurrection, even spiritual people in the Old Testament era were “held in slavery by their fear of death” for their entire lives (Hebrews 4:14-15). We should now view life and death differently than those who lived before the cross. Picture it this way – imagine a person who loves their job and has a very strong assurance of job security. Although they look forward and anticipate their retirement greatly, they put their heart into their job on a daily basis and do it excellently. The faith-filled disciple of Jesus is very similar in how they view life, their purpose in it and their future. They are comfortable both with the present and comfortable anticipating the future, including death. They are in all ways quite like the child described in Psalm 131:2: “But I have calmed and quieted myself, I am like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child I am content.” Such a person ideally accepts both aging and death with peace and not with fear or mere perseverance with gritted teeth. But just how do we reach that ideal?
The Worst Story Ever Told
We reach it by really grasping the big picture, the biggest possible, as fully as is humanly possible – the greatest story ever told. Just what do you think is the great story ever told? Common answers are good but often incomplete, such as God’s love or Jesus on the cross bearing our sins, and other variations or additions to these two. The biggest picture goes much deeper and must start at the dawn of creation.
Adam and Eve were created perfect in just about every way, and they were certainly sinless. Once sin entered the world, a slowly developing whirlpool for humanity had begun and there was no stopping it. The rate of its swirling might have seemed to have paused at times in history, but not for long. Ultimately, it would pick up speed and pull every human being into its deadly vortex. The consequences of sin are many, but death is at the center – both spiritual death (separation from God) and physical death (separation from our own bodies). Once banned from the Garden that housed the Tree of Life, the original pair began to age and head toward physical death, and that sentence of death had to include all humans from that point forward (Genesis 3:22-24). We each die spiritually because of our own sins, but we die physically because of that first sin in the Garden and banishment from its Tree of Life.
The Greatest Story Ever Told
God by his nature is both all-knowing and timeless. He sees what we call time all at once – past, present and future. Before he created the world with humans as its apex, he knew exactly what was going to happen. He knew what the pain of rebellion was going to do to mankind and do to him. His plan was clearly in place long before it was implemented. That plan was destined to become the greatest story ever told. The Creator was going to take the form of a creature in order to die and save his creatures for eternity. Who could ever have imagined such a story?
It is true that other religions have mythology that includes gods taking human forms, as shown in Acts 14:8-18, but no other religion would dare imagine that a god would die for his sinful, rebellious creatures. All religions have this in common: they teach that we should be good and do good. Christianity is totally unique in teaching that we cannot do this without Divine intervention enabling us to do it, and that intervention began with God becoming human to die for all of the sins of all humans of all time. Mind-boggling! Unbelievable! The greatest story ever imagined and the greatest story ever told!
Christianity is absolutely unique. That uniqueness explains why these two statements are true of Christ’s religion and true only of his religion:
“Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me’” (John 14:6).
“Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
Once a group of theologians were discussing world religions and the question of whether Christianity was unique, and if so, why? C.S. Lewis, famous author and teacher of the last century, entered the group’s discussion late. Upon hearing the topic, he stated quickly that that the answer was simple: grace! The idea of grace is amazing, as the popular song puts it, but beyond amazing when you consider what made saving grace possible – God becoming man and dying for his creation that grace might abound! It was the only answer for the dilemma of sin and God knew it and did it.
Embracing the Near-Inconceivable!
Once I started grasping this big picture more fully, I would no longer want to eliminate my aging and death even if I somehow could. How could I possibly desire to rob the world of the greatest story ever told, which was the only way to save humanity spiritually? I believe I am now looking at that process differently than when I wrote those words in the book I mentioned back in 2016, saying that I hated aging and was afraid to die. I keep applying myself to understanding my purpose in this last part of life. I must still be alive for a reason. God is not yet done with me. A part of that reason is for me to keep trying to better understand and explain to others how to embrace life’s “end game” and all that it brings to us and to our friends and family whom we leave behind.
I have a deeper sense of peace about life’s final chapter, a sense that I could often best describe as a peace that “transcends all understanding” (Philippians 4:7). In this article, I have tried to explain what simply must be considered the greatest story ever told. I pray that it helps your understanding of why aging and death are to be embraced, even joyfully. God knows that we need to help each other through that portal into an eternity that is quite literally inconceivable until we enter into it. The famous Christian song says, “I can only imagine,” but actually, you cannot. The Great Beyond is quite greatly beyond our wildest imagination. Near the end of the Aging Grace book, I wrote these words, providing an apt way to close this article:
Life in the womb of this earth is sometimes comfortable and peaceful, and the thought of leaving it might still be a bit scary. But let’s allow it to be scary in the same way that astronauts must feel as the flames of rocket fuel start pushing them into a world they have heretofore only imagined.
With that, I close. I’ll see you there, maybe soon!
1 Peter 5:7 – “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.”
In this verse, Peter gives us a command, one that is absolutely essential for spiritual and emotional health. But he doesn’t tell us exactly how to do it. No doubt some approach comes to your mind as you read the verse, but more might be involved than would immediately register with you. This article describes in detail an approach that has proved invaluable to me in my decades-old walk with God. Read it and see if it can be helpful to you.
Journaling – what exactly is that? Here is the first definition found when Googling the term: “Journaling generally involves the practice of keeping a diary or journal that explores thoughts and feelings surrounding the events of your life.” As you look further at those online entries, you will find many emotional health experts describing the benefits of journaling. You will also find that a number of famous people practiced journaling as an important part of their lives. David writing his Psalms would be a familiar example. So, clearly journaling is something good and perhaps very important to us humans. But as the title suggests, doing it with God is a higher level, raising something good to something great. In this article, I want to share examples of journaling that have blessed my life and at times, helped me climb out of a deep pit spiritually and emotionally.
A Resistant Learner
My wife has journaled with God for decades, writing out her prayers on a daily basis. I resisted following her example for years, believing that I was more in touch with my emotions than she is and that prayer walks were quite sufficient to unload my burdens to God and find his solutions and directions. But eventually, my life became more complicated and the burdens overwhelming. On one memorable occasion, Theresa and I got into a spat that wasn’t pretty, and it was mostly me (nearly all me, to be totally honest). It was on day one of a three-day marriage getaway. She kept asking what was wrong with me and I honestly didn’t know. The next morning a long prayer walk didn’t put me in touch with what was eating at me, nor did the one the next day. I had two bad days, and I’m sure she must have had the same, having to put up with me.
The third day as we returned home, the first part of the trip was on a ferry from Nantucket to Cape Cod. For the two plus hours on the boat, I was typing on my laptop almost feverishly, pouring out my pain to God. That was one intense introduction to serious journaling with God. I discovered that journaling exposed my heart and soul like nothing else. We can be full of disturbing feelings and not be able to identify them, feeling terrible and not really knowing why. Times like this occur when too many different disturbances in our personal universe are crammed in together. Praying about them or talking to others about them is helpful, for it distills them down to about the size of our mouths. Writing about them (think pen and paper) distills them down to the size of a pen point. Then the minute details start to emerge, and we begin to see the issues much more clearly.
That particular day, now many years ago, I discovered the main areas of my burdens. I not only listed the areas; I gave each one a percentage of the total burden I was feeling. Something about getting it all written down and evaluating it started freeing me up and giving me hope. There was light at the end of the tunnel after all! As I prayed, God started helping me see answers to each of those five areas. My world righted itself and my wife’s better husband returned! That husband discovered that his wife’s approach to journaling was a hidden treasure that would bless him for years to come. It was a memorable boat ride and the start of my journaling with God. The truth is that I am more in touch with my emotions than my wife is and most of the time my prayer walks do accomplish what I need with God. But there are times that the victory of surrender simply will not occur without journaling with God.
The Latest Version
Let me skip to my last such victory, a very recent one. I discovered a somewhat new approach that really helped. It may help you. This year (2019) has been a difficult one for me, and for us as a couple. Although our marriage is doing quite well, other aspects of life have been seriously challenging, to the point of me becoming overwhelmed (again). Thankfully, Theresa and I almost always remain very united in facing challenges and we have this year as well. I won’t share those challenges in any detail but suffice it to say that I desperately needed a victory of surrender.
I started my trek in that direction by setting aside an open-ended period of time to write at my computer. After listing a number of my burdens with which I was in touch, it became obvious that they all fit into five total categories. They were: personal concerns; family concerns; friends concerns; church concerns; and world concerns (especially those in my home country, our current society). I ended up with quite a number of entries in each of these categories. Like Abraham, I had to face the truth before I could “faith” it. For the next two days, I re-read what I had written and added to it. I didn’t want to leave any burden hidden in the deep recesses of my heart.
On the fourth day, I highlighted everything in each category and hit the delete key. I was ready to surrender it to God, to “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7). However, I left the category headings in place. For the next two days, I listed the most significant items under each category again that came to mind, a much smaller number than on the earlier list. Then I hit the delete button again. The next day (day 6 in the process), I found things to be thankful for in each of the five categories and listed them – the light at the end of the tunnel! I did the same on day 7. The following morning, I awoke with a feeling of complete peace and gratitude.
Receiving and Giving Back
Perhaps you are thinking, “Wow, Gordon, that’s a long process and a lot of work!” Yes, but well worth it. You may be built differently than me and maybe you don’t get as clogged up emotionally as I do. Good on you if that’s true of you, in which case your journaling can follow a shorter route (as mine does most of the time). But I know people well enough to know that many are like me – worriers who want to fix everything wrong with themselves, others and the world in general. My shorter prayer list has well over 100 individuals on it and my longer one far more than that. When I add too many personal issues to those concerns for others, it can reach the point of my being overwhelmed, especially if I am not processing my burdens effectively and consistently on pretty much a daily basis. Life does tumble in and too much of it tumbling in at once drives me to the kind of journaling process I have described.
Interestingly, this recent experience came at an important time. God is in control, always. We had scheduled some extended time (days) with a couple who is very near and dear to us. They came at a time when they were facing a similar place in their lives that I had just worked through – that overwhelmed stage. Our first time together provided the opportunity to not only listen as they shared many of their burdens but to share this approach I had just used in working through my burdens to yet another victory of surrender. Although the thought of writing down the details of painful experiences was not a positive one initially, the brother did what I recommended. I believe the writing, combined with much talking, was both cathartic and provided directions for further healing.
God is amazing – he allows us to experience hard times for at least two big reasons. One, to fight for our own spirituality and to grow though that fight. No pain, no gain. Two, to then share with others our challenges and how we found answers. We get help and we give help as a part of what the New Testament describes as “One Another Christianity.” For me, journaling with God is an essential part of his brand of Christianity. Although sharing my burdens with others is always an essential part of the process, sometimes only deep journaling with God will enable me to completely offload those burdens. I suspect the same is true for most of us.