Growing Kingdom People – Be Careful with the “Spirit of Fear”

Be Careful with the “Spirit of Fear”

In recent weeks, as followers of Christ have been asked to curtail their practices, some have warned us against giving into the “spirit of fear.”  To be honest, I have been so busy working through the logistics of the new normal, I haven’t taken the time to address the concerns I have over the misuse of this phrase.  But I have a few moments today to share the thoughts that have been churning in my mind.

When we have concerns about the use of a spiritual word or phrase, we should turn to scripture first to discern root meanings.  The “spirit of fear” phrase comes from 2 Timothy 1:7 where Paul wrote, “For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline.”

The context of this verse is Paul’s encouragement to Timothy to remain faithful in proclaiming the gospel of Christ in the face of hardship and persecution.  Timothy was serving in a hostile environment where Christians could be harassed, imprisoned or killed for sharing the message of salvation.  There were even false teachers within the church who had shown their willingness to betray their brothers and sisters to the authorities.

Therefore, it appears to me, the “spirit of fear” Paul is talking about is the one Satan puts in our hearts to prevent the spread of the good news of Jesus.  There are those who equate this with being told they cannot worship in large groups out of fear of COVID-19.

I understand this is a complex issue, and modern attacks on religious liberty have made us much more suspicious of government interference.  We have all seen examples recently of “overreach” where government leaders have put insane restrictions in place that appear to target segments of the population.

I get this, and I will be on the picket line if someone truly tries to take away my right to assemble with others and worship God.

But I wish to share a few other perspectives.

First, the decision to practice CDC guidelines is not the same as the “spirit of fear.”  It is a way of respecting the authorities God has put over us and showing deference to our health care workers who must deal with the consequences of our behavior.  I have actually been able to share my faith more as a result of the restrictions in our community at this time.  God has given me opportunities to meet more neighbors, encourage those who are growing in their faith, and show love to people through caring acts.  There are those who attend our on-site worship services (under normal circumstances) who have not yet given their lives to Christ, but in many ways the church has now been pushed back into the world to share its faith with more people.

Secondly, our worship practices are not bound by culture.  They are defined by scripture.  The first church was made up of house churches, where small groups of people gathered to worship Christ and encourage one another in the faith.  Don’t get me wrong.  I absolutely believe in large gatherings of believers and get excited when I see mega-churches draw tens of thousands of people for worship.  What a testimony to our world!  But if we think we aren’t gathering for worship when we are singing along with a praise team over the internet and taking communion with our family, we are mistaken.  In this case, we are actually closer, culturally, to the model of the first church.  Incidentally, one reason house churches were popular was due to the risk of persecution.  Yet, Paul didn’t accuse anyone huddled together in a house to worship of having a “spirit of fear.”  Rather, it was those who shrunk from opportunities to share their faith with unbelievers.

Finally, some of the “insider” rationales I have heard for equating the “spirit of fear” with a cautious approach to reopening places of worship are more fearful than the fear that is claimed.  These rationales include the fear of losing members to other churches, struggling financially due to lower offerings and personal fears of what Satan might do in people’s lives if we are not with our church family.  I know there is some truth to these concerns.  But is our God so small that He can’t deal with these matters?  And are these godly reasons worth putting people’s lives at risk?

I understand the psychology of fear.  I realize, we can spend so much time worrying and watching newscasts about people getting sick and dying that we stop living.  And I am going crazy without interaction with my church family!  This is one of the hardest things I have ever done as a minister.  Last week I conducted a funeral service where a family was restricted to ten people and children sat alone in chairs six feet away from their parents.  I wanted to reach out and hug everyone, but refrained.

However, we need to be careful we don’t use a verse from the Bible to promote an opinion.  More than this, we should never use scripture out of context to manipulate people into doing something that is not in their best interests.

I know everyone doesn’t share my view expressed here, and that’s alright.  I also think God has given us the freedom to go in one of many directions in a time of crisis.  We just need to be careful we don’t put words in God’s mouth for our own purposes.

That is something that should make us afraid.

Very afraid! (Revelation 22:19)

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Growing Kingdom People – Isolated No More

Isolated No More

In this time of isolation, I have been searching the scripture for examples of those who were isolated and found strength from God in their circumstances.

To be honest, some of my searches have ended in a less than encouraging place. For example, John the Baptist was placed in prison isolation for speaking candidly about King Herod Antipas’ sinful behavior toward his brother Philip’s wife Herodias. While in prison, John the Baptist struggled with his faith and sent some of his disciples to confirm Jesus’ Messiahship. John was ultimately executed by King Herod at the request of Herodias’ daughter Salome. There’s more to the account, but let’s just say isolation isn’t necessarily the pathway to happiness.

But it does provide an opportunity. Even in John the Baptist’s case, his doubts led to this amazing statement by Jesus in Matthew 11:4-6, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.”

I believe I can make a theological case for the notion that Jesus was never isolated against His will. In this way, His situation was different than John the Baptist’s. The only thing that comes close is Jesus’ abandonment on the cross where He cried out to His Father, “Why have you forsaken me?” But again, this horrific moment was not forced upon Jesus. Instead, it was a result of His choice to empty Himself of glory to absorb our shame.

This brings me to a place of isolation that bookends that moment on Calvary. At the cross Jesus said, “It is finished.” But at the other end of His ministry was a wilderness where Jesus voluntarily fasted for 40 days. I would call His experience there “solitude” were it not for the battle He fought, and the redemptive plan of God that hung in the balance.

In Jesus’ wilderness isolation, He faced three temptations by Satan. They came in the form of these challenges: 1) “If you are the Son of God, turn these stones into bread”, 2) “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, ‘He will command His angels concerning you’”, and 3) Showing Jesus all the kingdom of the world in all their splendor, Satan said, “All of this I will give you, if you will bow down and worship me.”

In each of these three cases, Jesus responded with the Word of God, respectively: 1) “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God”, 2) “Do not put the Lord your God to the test, and 3) “Worship the Lord your God, and serve Him daily”.

I could easily write many devotional thoughts on Jesus’ time in the wilderness. However, my desire here is to pose the question of whether or not it is possible for anyone, human or Divine, to be completely isolated, as long as God’s Word is present.

Scripture is “God breathed” (2 Timothy 3:16), and its truth comes to us as clearly as it did to those who first heard it. When we hear it, read it or remember it, the presence of God is revealed.

My point is that we are never alone as long as we have the Word of God. I am not speaking metaphorically in the same sense we are not alone as long as we have a good novel by our favorite author. Rather, the Word is alive. It is His very breath and presence.

This means, if you are feeling isolated during this time of crisis, and you access God’s Word, you are no longer alone. As soon as you engage on any level with the Word, you are connecting with God.  Perhaps, in this way, once John the Baptist heard Jesus’ response from his disciples, he was no longer isolated.  Jesus was, after all, the Word of God, the Divine Son.  I would like to think John was comforted by Jesus’ words, in spite of his demise.

For this reason, I encourage you to read God’s Word in your isolation. If you don’t already have a Bible reading plan, just start reading. I would suggest the Psalms, the book of Proverbs or the Book of John as good places to start.

Oh. And one more suggestion.

When you read God’s Word, try to find a quiet place so you can concentrate on what God is saying. When you do, your isolation will cease.

You may be quarantined.

But you won’t be alone.

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Growing Kingdom People – Isolated Servants in the Bible

Isolated Servants in the Bible

I didn’t see this coming.  Did you?

I guess I should have.

In recent years I have followed news stories about SARS, MERS, Ebola and the Measles.

And now COVID-19.

In my wildest imagination, I never dreamed I would be limiting my social gatherings to 10 people at once and working online from home out of an abundance of safety.

Apart from the serious impact the coronavirus can have on our physical health, the anxiety and isolation associated with our response is a valid cause for concern.

The Bible is full of examples of the latter.  The causes may vary, but God’s servants regularly faced anxiety and isolation.  Consider these examples and how they responded:

Job.  I know Job wasn’t persecuted in the traditional way.  He was not mistreated for his faith in God, or because He had a message to deliver from God.  Instead, he was persecuted by his friends!  Of course, I am using the word “friends” loosely.  At a time when Job had lost almost everything and was suffering physically, some religious guests came to torment him by accusing him of wrongdoing.  Job repeatedly declared his innocence and was eventually blessed by God.  His guests were rebuked by God.  Job teaches us, even the most faithful servants of God will suffer, and we should not presume we know why.

Joseph was tragically separated from his father Jacob through the treacherous actions of his brothers, who sold him into slavery.  Later, he was falsely accused, imprisoned, lied to and abandoned.  Eventually, God raised Joseph up to a place of prominence and used him to save others from starvation.  How isolated Joseph must have felt in a strange land where one wrong move could cost him his life.  Yet, God used Joseph to set the stage for the migration of Jacob’s (Israel) household to the land of Egypt.  Over the next 400 years, Jacob’s descendants were reduced to slavery, but through this unfortunate period of hardship they were fashioned into a nation.

Jeremiah was a persecuted prophet.  Once, he was beaten and put in stocks at the Upper Gate of Benjamin (Jeremiah 20:2).  Jeremiah resented his treatment and considered going on strike as a prophet.  But he knew, if he did, the Word of God would burn in his heart and he would be unable to hold it in (Jeremiah 20:9).  Jeremiah teaches us it is normal, even for a faithful servant, to be angry about the sacrifices God might ask him to make.  He also shows us how our sense of calling pushes us onward, as the thought of denying what God has put in us is more painful than acting on our convictions.

Finally, we come to Isaiah, also known as the “suffering servant.”  Isaiah is significant, not just because he was willing to suffer anxiety and isolation to fulfill his ministry, but also because he is a foreshadowing of Christ.  “He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth” (Isaiah 53:7).  Certainly, no one was ever so isolated as Jesus when he cried out from the cross, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”

I am not suggesting the faithful life is a long, dreadful journey of anxiety and isolation.  Some callings are more hazardous than others.  But we should also not be surprised when these things occur, or when God uses such seasons to do His greatest work.  In those moments when we can’t feel God’s presence or see His hand move, He might be doing His greatest work.

For now, the coronavirus situation has left us disoriented, and perhaps anxious and isolated.  We might wonder what God is thinking, allowing us to experience so many trials at once.  What possible good is there to be gained?

I must admit, I have some similar questions.  But I have learned this is a time for building endurance, loving my neighbor and trusting God with things over which I have no control.

There are some things God can only teach us through our trials.

And to be honest, I know a lot of people who have been enduring more than the coronavirus for a very long time.

Perhaps, I just need to watch, listen and learn.

At the present, there isn’t much else I can do.

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Growing Kingdom People – Three Highly Contagious Diseases

Three Highly Contagious Diseases

I do not wish to diminish the critical nature of the current spread of the Coronavirus.  Regardless of the statistical contrast between COVID-19 and other contagious viruses, lives have been lost.  COVID-19 is particularly frightening because it involves unknowns and we do not, as yet, have a vaccine.  We pray for those whose lives have been turned upside down by the Coronavirus, and we are saddened by those who have lost loved ones.

With these concerns in mind, I would also like to turn our attention to some highly contagious diseases found in the Bible.  I don’t mean to alarm you, but we are all vulnerable, and those who are infected can suffer irreparable harm to themselves and others.

The contagious tongue.  James writes, “Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark.” (James 3:5) The tongue, which represents the words we speak, can bless others with kindness.  But it can also destroy others with things such as gossip, slander and complaints.  I once heard a fable about a man who had trouble holding his tongue.  An older, wiser man gave him a feather pillow and asked him to slice it open.  When he did, the feathers were blown away by the wind.  Then the older man asked the man with the tongue problem to put the feathers back in the pillow.  He replied, “That is impossible!  They have blown away and can’t possibly be put back.”  The older man said, “That is correct.  This is also true of the careless words we speak of others.  Once they are spoken, they cannot be unspoken.” I shudder sometimes to think of how deadly our words can be.  For this reason, we should always strive to say things that are “life-giving” to those around us.

Contagious yeast.  Jesus warned His disciples against the yeast of the Pharisees.  In this case, “yeast” represented the legalistic teaching of the Pharisees (Matthew 16:6) as they prided themselves in keeping some portions of God’s Law while neglecting things such as love, mercy and justice.  Later, the Apostle Paul spoke of the “yeast of malice and wickedness” (1 Corinthians 5:8).  Yeast causes dough to “rise” or expand.  Therefore, something that is akin to yeast starts small and grows large.  We might think a little ungodliness won’t hurt anything, but sin has a way of expanding.  Legalism, malice and wickedness can infect an entire community.  If you don’t believe me, spend a little time studying the witch trials that took place in the American colonies.  Take the advice of Jesus and Paul and avoid the yeast.

Contagious godless chatter.  Similar to the disease of the tongue, “godless chatter” involves careless instruction by those who enjoy hearing themselves talk more than they value the truth.  In his second letter to Timothy, the Apostle Paul called out some false teachers and said, “their teaching will spread like gangrene” (2 Timothy 2:17).  We might think we are immune from this disease if we are not Bible teachers.  However, as our culture grows less knowledgeable of God’s Word, and more prone to create its own truth, words become emptier and the possibility of destroying lives through false teaching becomes greater.

These are dangerous diseases, to be sure.  The good news is, there is a vaccine!  God’s Word is our reliable source of truth and wisdom.  We may not understand it all, but it will guard our hearts, minds and tongues from feeling, thinking and speaking in destructive, contagious ways.

I will add that “contagious” is not necessarily a bad thing.  Words of truth, encouragement and love can also spread, lifting the spirits of the heart-broken and leading others into the waiting arms of our Savior, Jesus.  “Pleasant words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones.” (Proverbs 16:24)

If you are going to be contagious with your words, make sure they are the good kind of words.  Anything else can be downright deadly.

 

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Growing Kingdom People – Dazzle and the Devil

Dazzle and the Devil

My wife works for a popular maritime museum where every artifact tells a story.  Recently she introduced me to the concept of “dazzle.”

Just so I don’t miss the opportunity…

Yes, my wife is dazzling!

But the dazzle she described to me is noteworthy for other reasons.

In World War I, dazzle was used as a form of camouflage for British ships.  By way of description, the camouflage involved zebra-like patterns, painted in varying directions and sizes on the exterior of the ships.  Since German U-boats surfaced only temporarily to fire torpedoes at ships, it was thought the irregular appearance of camouflaged ships would make it more difficult for those firing the torpedoes to calculate direction, speed and distance.  By the wars end, more than 2300 ships had been dazzled.

The jury is still out on the effectiveness of dazzling.  Statistics suggest it helped some.  But it is the concept itself that interests me.  Not just the idea of camouflaging a ship, but the believe that making a ship more visible, but with a disorienting paint job, was better than striving for invisibility.

It would be hard to maintain this argument today with stealth technology.  But at the time, it made sense.  And since there was little means to make a ship appear invisible, the best defense was to create confusion.

Did you know Satan uses camouflage?  I’m not referring to the line in the old Terri Gibbs song, “I’ve heard about him, but I never dreamed he’d have blue eyes and blue jeans.”  Although, I suppose these words are not completely irrelevant.

I am also not suggesting Satan doesn’t try to undermine our lives in secret ways.  However, it appears, he prefers to alter his appearance.  In a teaching to the Corinthian church on the danger of false teachers, Paul writes, “And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light.” (2 Corinthians 11:14)

There you go.  Satan tries to catch us with his own “dazzle.”

What does the camouflage look like?

Sometimes he masquerades as the will of God.  If something we want to do is clearly a violation of God’s will, then…

And I know this may seem obvious, but…

It is not God’s will.

We might wish it was God will.  We might even feel as though it must be God’s will since if feels so right.  But if our plans are sinful, according to God’s Word, then He must want us to go in a different direction.

Sometimes Satan masquerades as a quick fix.  We might think the easy thing is the right thing because all of the pieces are falling into place.  But just as the dazzled ships made it harder for the U-boats to calculate their speed, the quick and easy could be a diversion from the path God wants us to take.  Often, the hard and long path is where God wants to take us to mold us for a purpose.

Finally, sometimes Satan masquerades as a feeling of spiritual intimacy.  It is strange to hear people say they have never felt closer to God when they are engaged in an obvious sin. Unfortunately, “closeness” is a feeling, that may or may not indicate a heart for God.

Do you see the resemblance to the dazzled ships?  Direction, speed and distance; God’s will, God’s timing and God’s closeness.  Satan can simulate all of these.

I know my metaphor here is a bit off since the British were the good guys in World War I.  Their dazzle was for a good cause.

But dazzle is dazzle, regardless of where it comes from.

Don’t fall for Satan’s camouflage trickery.

Scope up and torpedoes away!

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Growing Kingdom People – A Most Dangerous Illness

A Most Dangerous Illness

The Coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis is creating global chaos.

Communities are being quarantined.

Factories are shutting down.

Travel to some countries is screeching to a halt.

Meanwhile, health organizations are trying to track the spread of the virus, and determine the various ways it might be transmitted.

But then, most all of us already know these things.  We are praying COVID-19 doesn’t breach our country’s ability to effectively control its spread and treat its victims.  Hopefully, this frightening season will pass soon, and the world can stand down.

But there is something more dangerous than the virus itself, and we are all at risk!

The danger?  Human arrogance!

Human arrogance thinks it can’t happen to us.

Human arrogance thinks we are too smart or strong to be impacted.

This dangerous condition (HA), stopped construction on the Tower of Babel.  It sunk the Titanic.  And it has been the ruin of world leaders throughout the centuries.

“HA” leads us to believe we are above sin.

Immune to error.

Invincible.

No wonder Jesus said the meek will inherit the earth.  Not the “weak”, but the “meek”.  The meek recognize their deficiencies and work hard to overcome them.

I don’t mean to suggest we should stop fighting the Coronavirus, or fail to praise the hard work of those who have been on the front lines of defense, once the battle is over.  I thank God for the brilliant minds who are engaged in the race to protect our world from a catastrophic pandemic.

However, I feel most secure when the people leading the charge demonstrate a healthy humility.

“HA” has the power to destroy us all!

If COVID-19 doesn’t find us, something else will.

If we are consumed by arrogance.

Before a downfall the heart is haughty, but humility comes before honor. (Proverbs 18:12)

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Growing Kingdom People – Speaking of Kobe: Too Soon?

Speaking of Kobe: Too Soon?

When Kobe Bryant died in a helicopter crash, along with his daughter Gianna, and others, the sports world came to a sudden halt.  Not only did people grieve over the loss of Kobe, but tragedy was heaped upon tragedy as the names of other victims were released and the possibility of poor weather as a cause was suspected.

Then came the controversy.

The controversy was almost certain to emerge, but it’s timing took many Kobe fans by surprise.  By now, you are probably aware of Kobe’s past moral lapse with a young woman in a hotel room and her claim the event was not consensual.

That’s really all I want to say about that.

What I would like to address is the complicated position we are in as Christians when we search for the right words to speak in such cases.  At the risk of entering dangerous waters, I feel compelled to share the following thoughts:

Sexual assault should never be trivialized.  I am old enough to have lived through a number of seasons in which this crime has been brought to the public’s attention.  The present message seems to be that sexual assault is often overlooked or dismissed when powerful people are involved.  Victims are afraid of reprisal by their attackers or negative public opinion.  Of course, there are also those who falsely accuse, which further complicates the issue.  In any case, sexual assault is not something that can be ignored.

Kobe Bryant made a terrible mistake when he was unfaithful to his wife.  Consensual or non-consensual, his act was adulterous.

Kobe Bryant attempted to make peace with the people he hurt and with God.  This doesn’t excuse what he did, but it does demonstrate remorse.  After the hotel event, Kobe’s wife Venessa filed for divorce and the couple separated for two years.  Ultimately, Venessa withdrew the divorce papers and she and Kobe reconciled.  Kobe also re-engaged with his Roman Catholic roots and began to practice his spiritual walk again.  Does this prove Kobe was telling the truth about the hotel event and his accuser was lying?  Of course not.  The doubts regarding the incident were something Kobe had to live with as a consequence of his actions.  It simply shows us how he responded.

I believe it is possible for Christians to weep over Kobe’s adulterous act, show compassion for the woman who made the accusation and still respect Kobe’s basketball talent while grieving over the lives lost in the helicopter accident.  We may have opinions, but we should grieve over the things that should be grieved over and rejoice over the things that deserve rejoicing.  Kobe’s life was full of tragedy and triumph.  It is unchristian to say he got what he deserved, but just as unchristian to ignore the scars he might have inflicted on others.  Scars and grace are realities for those who follow Jesus.  We cannot afford to “take sides” and say one or the other doesn’t matter.

If you are not familiar with the Christian walk, this is the paradoxical world believers walk in.  We can’t expect to live in a sinful world and proclaim the message that sinners can be saved by grace without encountering some mental conflicts.

Here is where I land:

Acknowledge the seriousness of sin.

Comfort the victims of sin.

Celebrate redemption.

Mourn the loss of all life, and the potential that passes with it.

God’s grace doesn’t erase the scars sin leaves behind.  But the scars don’t define His grace.

I know these are hard truths to grasp, and even harder truths to put into practice.  But I believe they are true.

If they aren’t, I can tell you we are all in a lot of trouble.

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