Monday, January 30, 2017

A Fool Takes No Pleasure In Understanding

This past weekend has been a wild one, as social and news media blew up over President Trump’s recent executive orders regarding restrictions for immigrants and refugees seeking to enter the United States.  The advent of the internet and social media have allowed us to have instant access to breaking news, and even more instant access to platforms that allow us to share our opinions on said news.  This is a double-edged sword, and unfortunately we seem to have lost an appreciation for expressing ourselves in slow, wise ways that are well thought out, rational, and reasonable.  Instead, we broadcast the first thoughts that come into our heads that are more fueled by emotion than rational (let alone biblical) thought.  This has not been beneficial for societal discourse as a whole, and I believe this past weekend has been more evidence of that: entire people groups and religions have been maligned and raked over the social media coals. 

Unfortunately Christians have played a large role in speaking quickly and definitively on this issue (at least in my feeds), regardless of which side of the issue they support.  Internet memes are used to stand in judgment over those who disagree, and trite, divisive social commentary questions the authenticity of the faith of this group or that.  People who are supposed to be characterized by godly wisdom, and who are supposed to be quick to listen and slow to speak are clogging social media with unfounded accusations and judgments that have more to do with a desire to affiliate with a political position than to accord with biblical wisdom and justice.

This has to stop. 

Believe it or not, the Bible guides us in how we are to engage social and political issues in the public square, such as social media.  Here are four correctives that God gives us when we consider entering the digital marketplace of ideas.  We would be wise to heed them.

Seek the truth, speak the truth
God is a God of truth.  Jesus described himself as “the truth” (John 14.6).  God’s desire is to lead us into all truth through his Spirit (John 16.13).  Jesus prayed that his followers would be sanctified by the truth (John 17.17).  Everything God says is true (Numbers 23.19), and he commands his people to pursue, love, and know the truth.  Conversely, God detests lies, falsehood, and slander (see Proverbs 6.16-17, 12.22, etc.).  Much, if not most, political engagement on social media is not based in truth.  Rather, it is based on one-liners and zingers in the form of memes that support a person’s preconceived notions.  At worst (and all too commonly), social media commentary propagates false narratives on the issues of our day, which lead to misdirected thinking and believing.  In other words: slander and lies.  If we share ideas and information on social media that is not true or is misleading, we are participating in slander, gossip, and downright lies.  As people who pursue the truth, it is our obligation to not participate in such things, and we similarly have an obligation to finding the truth, and only speaking the truth, regardless of the situation or ideas that we engage.  We are to hold ourselves to a high standard of finding the truth on any and every issue, and only dialoguing according to the truth.  To spread slander, lies, and gossip – even on social media – is to participate in something that God hates.  Even in light of perceived injustices, we would be wise to not run to social media and pronounce judgment until we have the facts of the matter. 

Be quick to listen and slow to speak
Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. (James 1.19-20)

James says that we are to do two things slowly, and one thing quickly.  In our social media discourse, we are to be “quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.”  In an age dominated by social media and breaking news, however, this is very difficult to do.  Because of our pride, when news breaks we want to be the first ones to offer our opinions for all the world to see.  Social media platforms are built on quick and definitive words and speech.  Just check the news feed on your preferred social media platform right now: how much of what is in there has been thought out over time and can be characterized as an opinion that is based off of careful thinking and listening?  We should fight the temptation to make ourselves be heard on every issue.  And even when we have something to say, it should come from a long period of thinking and listening.  Instead of speaking because we are angry, we should listen – and then maybe speak.  After all, as James says, “the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.”  If you’re angry, and you’re going to post about your anger online, you better make sure it’s righteous anger.  Otherwise, be quiet. 

Seek to understand, not to express your opinion
A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion. (Proverbs 18.2)

There are multiple sides to that issue that you’re angry about, and about which you’ve just spouted off on social media.  Have you taken the time to understand each of those sides before speaking?  If not, you have no business talking about it.  The Bible says that if you are simply talking (or posting) in order to express your opinion, you’re a fool.  Fools have no desire to see the other side of an issue; fools have no desire to listen to and understand a dissenting opinion.  Fools only want to be heard.  Take a look again at your social media feed.  Does it look like people take pleasure in understanding, or in expressing their opinions?  What about the content you post?

The more you say, the more likely you are to sin
When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent. (Proverbs 10.19)

It’s very easy for social media debates to quickly escalate into name-calling, and for people to attach motives to others.  Usually, the more that is said, the more likely the conversation will degenerate into something ugly and sinful.  The Bible warns us against using a multitude of words.  Put simply, the more we talk, the more likely we are to fall into sin.  The reality of Proverbs 10.19 is easily observable with just a few clicks on any social media platform.  So before you engage in that debate on Facebook, consider the possibility that it could easily lead you into sin.  Don’t allow yourself to go there.  It’s probably better and wiser just to remain silent. 

How then shall we post?
Like it or not, our society has become one in which social media plays a dominant role.  As Christians who want to engage the culture and speak the word of God into it, it behooves us to be a part of that platform.  A few years ago, however, I got off social media altogether because it was becoming apparent to me that the things I said and shared on those platforms did not honor God.  It was easy for me to get angry and to propagate unfounded information that was not based in fact.  I was off social media for almost two years before coming back when I became the pastor of Riverview.  And nowadays, I stay mostly silent, for the very reasons I’ve listed above.  I’m not saying that Christians have to be silent about social and political issues on Facebook, but that there needs to be a lot more thought that goes into what we say on social media platforms.  If you can’t invest the time and energy into thinking deeply and truthfully about the issues that arise in our society, I would advise you not to comment.   

Also, consider the possibility that your polemical view might serve to alienate a friend or brother or sister in Christ who holds a different view from your own.  A strong statement on one side or another might serve to cause a division between yourself and others in the church.  Far be it from any of us to put a stumbling block in front of a brother or sister on social media. 

Christians are not to be people who communicate in knee-jerk reactions and platitudes represented by social media memes.  Rather, we are to be slow to speak, quick to understand, and to earnestly seek out the truth.  Christians are people who are characterized by their desire for the truth, whatever it might be, and no matter how inconvenient it might be.  In light of this reality, here’s a suggestion for you: rather than post a meme on social media, and rather than engaging in the next endless Facebook political debate that will probably cause you to fall into sin, take some time to think through whatever issue concerns you, and invite someone with whom you disagree out to coffee and go over the issue slowly, using the Bible to guide your thinking. 

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and the Christian

Around this time of year (mid-January), most people - including me - are sick of winter.  We're sick of the short days, the lack of sunshine, the cold temperatures, and being forced indoors because of the horrible weather.  Quite simply, winter gets old - fast.

In recent years doctors have perceived a pattern in these seasonally-related feelings and have classified them as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).  The Mayo Clinic defines SAD as "a type of depression that's related to changes in seasons," beginning and ending at about the same times of the year.  Symptoms include a loss of energy and moodiness.

The Mayo Clinic website encourages those who suffer from SAD to not "brush off that yearly feeling as simply a case of the 'winter blues' or a seasonal funk that you have to tough out on your own.  Take steps to keep your mood and motivation steady throughout the year."  Mayo recommends that SAD sufferers keep their moods and motivation steady throughout the year through light therapy, psychotherapy, and/or medications.

I have talked to many people, either at my church or even in my own family, who have either been self-diagnosed or diagnosed by a medical professional with this disorder.  I, myself, have often felt less energetic in winter, and I seem to have a shorter temper - probably from being cooped up inside 23 hours per day.  Does that mean I have SAD?  Before a Christian diagnoses himself or herself with SAD, I think it is very important to take into consideration two observations and three biblical truths.

Two Observations on Seasonal Affective Disorder
It is important to note that SAD is not scientifically observable or testable.  It cannot be definitively defined or classified.  It is based largely on how a person feels, and therefore is different from person to person.  For this reason, we should be careful to define our feelings with a supposed disorder.  It would not be accurate or healthy to align our feelings with a supposed disorder if they are actually naturally occurring and common.  Sometimes we feel certain ways because we just do, not because we are suffering from a disorder.

For this reason I would caution those who suffer from feelings associated with SAD to be very slow to treat their feelings with medicine.  It would seem to be to be unwise at best to use medicine to treat a disorder that is neither observable or testable.  Even if medication seems to help, there can be no evidence that it is having more effect on the condition than a placebo would, because again, it is not testable.  At worst, you could be putting chemicals in your body for no purpose, achieving no result.

Thee Biblical Truths for SAD Sufferers to Remember
Where do our feelings come from?  When the weather changes and the days get shorter, where do our feelings of lacking energy and moodiness and short-temperedness come from?  Is it possible that they come from SAD?  Yes.  It is also possible, however, that our negative feelings come from a lack of realization of God's sovereignty over the universe and over the seasons, and that he is working out his purposes in the seasons - even the dead of winter.  In other words, these negative feelings can come from a sinful forgetfulness of the truth of God's sovereign plan and purpose in the world.  If this is the case, Christians who believe they are suffering from SAD should treat their negative feelings with faith in three truths:

1. God has a purpose in winter.  Winter is not a curse.  It is a part of the good way that God has designed the world to function.  In fact, there are several beneficial things that happen through the freezing and thawing of the land and vegetation (Isaiah 55.10).  For instance, in winter, the land has a forced rest from being cultivated, giving soil time to regenerate its nutrients and moisture to be ready for the next planting season so that we can have food to eat.  The ground recuperates its moisture content through the melting of the snow.  Vegetation dies and regenerates, bringing about its seeds and spreading them across the land in order to reproduce.  God has designed winter to be exactly the way that it is, for his good purposes (Psalm 147.16).  If winter brings you down, remember that God is working in it and through it, and that it is actually a sign of his mercy and care for the earth and the people on it (Job 38.22).  Knowing that your Lord is at work - even in the bleakest days of the year - should help you reframe how you think about those short days and cold nights.

2. Winter is evidence of God's unchanging nature.  The changing seasons are one of the clearest natural sources of evidence that we have to prove the truth that God never changes.  Each year the seasons come and go in exactly the same way.  Summer is hot, autumn cools the earth, winter is cold, and spring brings back the warmth.  The leaves always fall in the autumn.  Winter brings the cold and snow.  And the seasons always come in the exact same order - never changing, always exactly the same.  We can look at the changing of the seasons and remember that God never changes (Malachi 3.6).  He is the same yesterday, today, and forever.  Rather than thinking negative thoughts, allow the changing of the seasons to remind you of this glorious truth.

3. Winter will end.  The Christian life can often be characterized by a time of waiting.  We exist in this broken world, in broken bodies, longing for the time when the earth and our bodies will be remade (Romans 8.19-23).  We are waiting for the "winter" of our sinful, painful existence to come to an end, and for the glorious "spring" of the resurrection.  We comfort ourselves during this time of living in sinful bodies in a sinful world with the reality that the resurrection is coming - the day is coming when Christ will return and create a new heavens and new earth, in which there will be no pain, sickness, death, or tears.  In other words, we have hope for a new beginning.  This hope and period of waiting defines the Christian life.  Christians are waiters.  This reality should help us get through the few months of bummer-weather that we have to go through each year.  Remember that there is a season for everything, and all things come to an end (Ecclesiastes 3.1).

Like all things, we can and should treat Seasonal Affective Disorder with the truth of God's word: we have an unchanging, sovereign Lord who is working out his purpose in the world and in our lives.  Are you guaranteed to have a happy winter?  Will the negative feelings come to an immediate end?  Not necessarily, but this reality gives us hope.

Monday, January 9, 2017

The Faith of a Friend

I think that I am one of those people who inadvertently has a sign on his back that says, "Ask me for a ride."  I have a long track record of being out in public (at the gas station, the grocery store, etc.) and being approached by someone in need of a ride.  There must be something about my 6'3'', large frame that communicates that I am a safe person from whom to get a ride, because I've given rides to a lot of strangers over the years who have asked me for one out of the blue.

One of these rides that I've given stands out in my memory: several years ago I was at the old Har Mar mall in Roseville, and I saw a man walking through the parking lot.  He asked me for a ride, and I obliged.

"Where are you headed?" I asked, after he had gotten in the car and I learned his name was Alex.  "Caribou Coffee," he said.  And then he let out a long sigh and said, "I'm going to meet a friend of mine there and tell him that this whole Christianity thing just isn't working for me."  (Hello, providence?)

It wasn't a long drive to the Caribou, but in the brief time that I had with Alex I learned that he had fallen on some very hard times, even struggling with homelessness.  He had a friend, however, who had been witnessing to him and encouraging him to believe the gospel.  But even in spite of Alex's attempts at faith, his physical circumstances had not changed much, and he felt that if he became a Christian, then his physical circumstances would improve - his life would get better and he would stop struggling so much.  That didn't happen, however, and so Alex was on his way to meet with this Christian friend to tell him that "this whole Christianity thing just isn't working for me."

I was able to give him some brief words of encouragement, pray for him, and then drop him off at Caribou where he would go on to have his conversation.  I never saw him again, and I didn't have any contact information for him.  I have no idea how that conversation went or where he is now in his spiritual life and growth.

I do know one thing for sure, however: this man had a friend who had a great faith, and who was doing everything he could to bring that man to the feet of Jesus.

We see this same kind of friendship and dedication in Luke 5.17-26, when a man's group of friends bring him to see Jesus, but are unable to access him because of the large crowd that is present.  The man had a physical condition that left him paralyzed, and his friends were hoping that Jesus could help him.  Doing their best to fulfill their mission, they get creative and actually go up on the roof of the house and lower the man through the roof until he's right in front of Jesus.

These friends are the kind of friends we all want, and hopefully, want to be to others.  These friends believed in Jesus, and they knew that he could help their friend - both physically and spiritually.  They knew that Jesus had the power to heal him, and they knew that Jesus had something else this man needed: the power to forgive sins.  And so, they did everything in their power to get their friend some face time with Jesus.  Even when they hit a roadblock and their "Plan A" wasn't successful, they moved on to "Plan B" and got creative in order to find a way to get this man to Jesus.

When Jesus sees everything they've done to arrange this encounter, he responds in a very strange way.  It says in Luke 5.20 - "And when he saw their faith, he said, "Man, your sins are forgiven you," (emphasis mine).  That's odd, because Jesus appears to forgiven the man's sins on the basis of his friends' faith.  This is not the pattern that we see in scripture.  Instead, what we see in the Bible is that an individual is always saved by grace through his own faith, not the faith of someone else.  No one is saved on account of someone else's faith.  You can't be saved because your mom and dad believe the gospel, nor can you be saved because your friends are Christians.  God is calling each one of us - individually - to repent and believe.  Although Jesus is moved by the faith of these friends and the lengths they went to in order to arrange this meeting, they are not the cause of this man's salvation.

But we should not miss the overwhelming power of the faith of a friend as displayed in these verses.  God will reward the faith of those who believe with every ounce of their being that if they can just bring a friend or relative to the feet of Jesus, he will save them.  God uses faithful friends to accomplish his purposes on the earth, including the salvation of people he has chosen to redeem.  God sees the intensity of our desires for others to be saved, and he rewards our faith.

The man that I described earlier obviously had a faithful friend that was attempting to get him in front of Jesus.  So far it hadn't been too successful, but this friend was clearly believing that God could save Alex, and he was working and operating in that belief.  God had so far seen this friend's faith and desire for Alex to believe the gospel, and God had orchestrated times and places where Alex could hear the gospel and believe it.  God even set up that meeting between Alex and his friend and Caribou.  God works through faithful friends.

Are you a faithful friend?  Do you have a desire to bring your friends and relatives to the feet of Jesus, and are you willing to get creative about how you will do that?  Are you willing to work hard and maybe pursue some unorthodox avenues to make it work (like digging through a ceiling and lowering your friend through it?).  Be a faithful friend, and do whatever it takes to bring people to the feet of Jesus so that they can encounter him and receive the healing they need.