Thursday, April 27, 2017

When Religion Leaves a Bad Taste In Your Mouth

"Religion" is a bad word it seems, these days.  Most people have a very negative understanding of what religion is and how it plays out in regular life.  In fact, the largest growing religious group in America are the so-called "Nones" - those people who, when asked with what religious tradition they affiliated, answered "None."  Indeed, according to a 2014 Pew Research study, approximately 23% of American adults claim no religious affiliation.

Why does religion put such a bad taste in the mouths of one quarter of the U.S. population?  Perhaps it is because religious groups are often affiliated with political groups.  Or perhaps it is because the usual picture of religious life is one of puritanical rule-following and empty ceremony and tradition.  Whatever the reason, the word "religion" is becoming increasingly pejorative in our culture.

Even Christians can have very negative understandings of what religion is.  I have a friend who once had a shirt that read "Religion is dead.  God is not."  Many people avoid the term "religion" altogether, and instead opt for the more palatable qualifier, "spiritual."  You've no doubt heard someone say in describing themselves, "I'm not religious, I'm spiritual."

To the extent that the modern understanding of religion is associated with political ideologies, legalistic rule-following, and empty ceremony, I'll throw my hat in with the "Nones."  I have no desire to be affiliated with that kind of religion.  Indeed, it is possible and even very common in our country for religion to be something of very little substance, and often times choked with ceremony and tradition that is void of substance and is only carried out for its own sake.  This kind of religion is empty, false, and completely unprofitable.  And, most unfortunately, you don't have to visit too many churches in America before you run into this kind of religion.

But the Bible does not consider "religion" to be a bad word.  On the contrary, religion can be a very good, profitable, and God-honoring thing.  First, in order for religion to be of any value, it must connect the mind, heart, and body of the individual.  That is, right beliefs must translate into right actions.  "If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person's religion is worthless." (James 1.26)  If you claim a set of beliefs, your actions need to match your beliefs.  If your religion has no impact on your life then it's worthless, because your beliefs ring hollow to the extent that they have no power to change how you live.  If you espouse belief in a set of truth claims (such as the Bible, for example), your belief must be displayed in your life.  And not just in ceremonies and traditions, but in real, tangible ways such as your speech.  Do your beliefs change the way you think, act, and speak?  If not, your religious practice is worthless.  You're a "None" and you don't even know it.

Second, religion that is true and right and pure is religion that is practiced in accordance with the word of God, and is in itself a reflection of the heart, mind, and will of God.  "Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world." (James 1.27)  God has revealed in his word what is important to him: the things he loves, hates, how he acts, what is right, what is wrong, etc.  God-honoring religion is living a life that responds rightly to what God has revealed in his word - it's knowing God's heart, mind, and will, and then living in accordance with that knowledge.

The example in James 1.27 is that of orphans and widows.  God has a special place in his heart for orphans and widows and those on the margins of society.  He has a special love, care, and concern for them.  Religion that honors God, then, is to have a heart that mirrors God's love and care for orphans and widows.  But it's not just limited to orphans and widows.  Genuine religion mirrors God's care and concern for all things that he has revealed in his word.  Genuine religion is concerned with care for the poor; genuine religion is concerned with holiness and righteousness according to God's commands (or, as James says, "to keep oneself unstained from the world"); genuine religion is concerned with conducting my relationships according to biblical principles; genuine religion is concerned with conducting myself in business and at my job in accordance with God's word.  The list goes on and on.  The practice of obedience to what God says to do is the purest and best practice of religion.

If the word "religion" puts a bad taste in your mouth or bad thoughts in your head, chances are that you have either participated in a religion that is more concerned with ritual and ceremony than actual obedience to God's word, or perhaps you've had a bad experience with people who claim allegiance to this religion or that, and so you've decided to be one of the "Nones."  If that's the case, you need to know that your experience with religion has only been with false religions and worthless religions - not the religion of the Bible.  The religion of the Bible is one that has power to change lives and make people more like God.  True, pure, and good religion is always done in accordance with God's revelation of himself found in the Bible.

Far from being a bad word, "religion" can express the deepest and most precious truths of the Christian faith, if we will practice it according to God's word.

Monday, April 3, 2017

God's Purpose In Your Pain

The idea that the pain we experience in life has a purpose behind it is a foreign one to most of us.  Most of the time pain and hard things just seem to come out of nowhere for no apparent reason.  But this is not what the Bible says about the hard things we experience.  Instead, when we suffer and go through trials it is always for a purpose.  It’s not just a result of bad luck or unfortunate happenstance, but rather the divine plan of God for your good.  God has a purpose in your pain.  James 1.1-4 tells us four purposes that God is working out when we go through something difficult. 

1. To test your faith (James 1.3)
When God sends divinely appointed trials your way, one of the reasons he does so is to test your faith.  But let’s be clear: this is not for the purpose of testing you for the sake of testing you, or to see how you do and then give you a grade and ridicule you if you fail.  Instead, the kind of testing of our faith that God does is intended to grow us in our faith.

Do you recall when Abraham took his son Isaac to the top of Mount Moriah? (Genesis 22)  There God instructed him to sacrifice his only son – the son that God had promised him decades before.  But then, of course, as Abraham was about to sacrifice Isaac, God says, “Stop” and he provides a ram to be sacrificed in the place of Isaac.  This was a test of faith – and this test gave Abraham a completely new appreciation for God as provider, and a new understanding of God’s faithfulness to his promises.  But it took Abraham coming to the brink of sacrificing his son on Mount Moriah for him to come to that understanding.   Do you think that was hard?  Do you think that was a trial?  Absolutely.  But that trial – that test of faith – was divinely designed by God to increase Abraham’s faith.

Or, think of Job.  Satan says to God, “I bet I can get Job to curse you,” and God says, “OK, how about a test?”  And so he gives Satan the authority to take away Job’s livestock – his wealth – his children, and even his physical health.  And Job goes through immense physical and emotional and spiritual torment.   By the time Job gets through this test he says to God, “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you.” (Job 42.5)  In other words, through this trial I have come to know you in a whole new way that I would not have known you had I not experienced this difficulty.

God tests our faith not to put us through the wringer unnecessarily, but to grow us.  Growth mostly comes through times of testing – it mostly comes when you walk through the valley of the shadow of death.  Because when you are at your lowest you will find that God is at his strongest.  So God’s purpose in your pain by testing your faith is not to test you for the sake of testing you, but to help you to grow.

2. To produce steadfastness in you (James 1.3)
In the trials that we face, one of his main purposes is to produce in us steadfastness.  The Greek word translated “steadfastness” can also be understood as perseverance or endurance – being made strong to stand against the coming onslaught, and to outlast it.  One of God’s purposes in our pain is to build up in us this kind of steadfastness, this perseverance in the midst of life’s trials.

Now why is that important?  Why does God want to produce steadfastness in us?  The answer is because we don’t live the Christian life in a vacuum.  We live it in a world where horrible tragedies happen, and where people contract illnesses and diseases that disfigure or scar their physical bodies.  We live in a world where accidents happen.  In other words, we live in a world of never-ending trials.  It’s not as though, when you experience one trial or difficulty, that you’ve met your quota for your lifetime, and you get some time off from another trial.  No, there’s another trial waiting for you, just around the corner.  The question is, now that you have made it through this trial, what are you going to do to get through that trial?

And so, God gives us tests of faith to build us up so we can endure the next test, because it is coming, because we live in a sinful world where bad things happen.  By giving us trials and tests of faith, God is preparing us for what lies ahead.  He is producing in us steadfastness.

But it’s not just steadfastness, but a steadfastness of hope.  The kind of strength God gives to us not only gets us through this current difficulty and gets us ready for the next one, but it changes our thinking.  As we look back on our lives and the trials we’ve experienced, our worldview changes because we know that God has been with us in the past, and he will be with us in the future.  I have hope for this trial, and the next one, and the next one, because God is a God who goes into the valley of the shadow of death with his people.

3. To make you more like Jesus (James 1.4)
James says that as we go through difficulties and grow in steadfastness, we will become “perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”  What he means by that is we will become more like God.  God is perfect and complete in himself – he lacks nothing.  James says that when you go through a trial, that’s the goal – that’s what God is working toward: to make you more perfect and more complete so that you will lack in nothing.  Or in other words, to make you more like Jesus.  

Sometimes this is the only encouragement I can give as a pastor to people who are suffering: if nothing else, realize that if you trust God through this incredibly hard thing, you will come out on the other side of it looking more and more like Jesus.  I’ve sat with people, and they’ve told me what’s going on in their lives, and many times it’s tragic and unfair and there’s nothing to be done.  At those times, the only counsel I can offer is this: “Trust God through this trial, and you’ll come out looking more like Jesus.”

And really, that should be enough for us.  If that’s all you get out of your trial and your test of faith, that’s enough.  If you aren’t vindicated, but you look more like Jesus, that’s a good trade off.  If you are falsely accused of something and your reputation suffers, but it makes you more like Jesus, that’s a good tradeoff.  It’s better for you to look like Jesus than it is for you to have an untarnished name and reputation.  If you go through a prolonged period of suffering, and you come out of it sick and frail, but you look more like Jesus, that’s a good tradeoff.  It’s better to look like Jesus than to have a strong and healthy body.  God is working in your difficulties to make you more perfect and complete – more like Jesus.

4. To bring you joy (James 1.2)
James says that through all this, our trials will actually lead to our joy.  It doesn’t mean you’re necessarily happy while you go through something hard, but the reality that suffering makes you more and more like Jesus should certainly give you a confidence and a hope when things are difficult.  This hard thing is making you more like Jesus, and that’s something to get excited about.
For this reason, we should not despise trials and suffering in our lives – God is working in them.  Does that mean you have to like it when you go through something hard?  No, but it should give you a hopeful perspective on whatever you’re going through.  So bring it on, Lord; bring on the suffering; bring on the trials.  And with the trials, bring on your strength.  And as I lean into you, make me more and more like Jesus.  That is what I want.  That will lead to my joy. 

When we go through trials and difficulties, our natural inclination is to get out of it as fast as possible.  We want to end the pain, take a drug, self-medicate, avoid the problem, or whatever in order to make the hardship go away – end the pain as fast as possible.  But if God truly is working in our trials, perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to get out of them.  Perhaps it would be better to just sit with the pain a while and feel it vividly, and ask God what he might be trying to teach you.  Think about how this pain can lead you to steadfastness.  Think about how it can make you more like Jesus.

God has a purpose in your pain, and he is constantly at work to bring it about for your good.