Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Homosexuality and Freedom

The issue of homosexuality is one of the most contentious issues in American culture today. The biblical position is clearly that homosexuality is wrong. The point of this post is not to prove this, but rather to talk about how we respond to this teaching. If you want to look into the biblical framework, you can read 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, 1 Timothy 1:9-11, or Romans 1:24-27. Also, you can listen to a message that I just preached at Life Bible Fellowship Church this past Sunday if you want to hear my framework on these passages and this issue.
Of all the biblical positions that Christian embrace, this may be the one that is least tenable in our culture. There are many reasons for this. One of the key reasons is that this teaching seems to take away the freedom for people to define themselves.
I confess that, when dealing with the values of our culture, it is a hard sell when trying to convince people that homosexuality is wrong. It is an uphill climb. I don't believe that this post will necessarily convince anyone to change their position. I do, however, hope to present some thoughts that may be able to help us with our framework as we talk about the issue.
The main issue at stake in this post is this: Does the Bible's teaching on homosexuality rob people of their freedom?
In a sense, it seems like the answer is a very obvious, 'Yes.' When anything is forbidden, this robs people of freedom. In this sense, all prohibitions in the Bible rob human beings of freedom. Prohibitions against adultery, murder, robbery, slander, and pride all rob people of freedom. The prohibitions force us to change our actions, to limit ourselves. In order to follow them we must say 'No' to our impulses when we feel like slandering others, retaliating in violence, acting on sexual impulses, and thinking too highly of ourselves. All commands, in a certain sense, rob us of freedom.
To follow this up, it is reasonable to conclude that most people agree that it is good for us to limit our freedom. Most of us believe that in every situation we should not exercise our freedom to murder or rob one another. And most of us believe that, at least most of the time, we should not commit adultery or speak disparagingly of others.
But why do we limit our freedoms? Is it just so that others are not victims of our slander or violence or pride? If this is the case, then we might say, "Our lives would be better if we could freely enact our violent and sexual and verbal and territorial impulses, but for the good of others, we must deny ourselves." We might lament our loss of freedom, but begrudging accept the situation.
But would our lives really be better if we lived completely by our impulses? The answer is certainly 'No.' In fact, true freedom is not about the ability to say 'Yes,' but the ability to say 'No.' Before the Emancipation Proclamation, slaves were not free because they had to say Yes to their masters. Their freedom was defined by their ability now to say 'No' to them. When we are free, we are able to say 'No' to those who would make oppressive demands from us. Denial is core to the idea of freedom.
But now comes the point of divergence between those who embrace the gospel of Jesus and those who reject it. Those who embrace Jesus end up concluding that Jesus sets us free from a number of oppressive masters. In fact, we conclude that, for the most part, our impulses are oppressive masters. Our impulse toward pride will end up placing us in the prison of self-love. Our impulse toward anger will place us in the prison of bitterness and resentment. Our impulse toward rampant sexual exploration will place us in the prison of hollow sexual addition or the quest to fulfill ourselves through sex. Our impulse toward speaking cruel words to others will place us in the prison of loneliness and self-importance. When we let our impulses lead us, we are not free. We are their slaves. We have to do what they tell us to do. What we think will bring freedom only brings slavery.
But the point of all this is not that there is no proper expression of the freedom for which we long. The point is not that we can't get freedom. The point is just that we often look for it in the wrong places. We look for it in the free expression of our appetites for food and drink and sex and revenge, while all of these lead to slavery instead of freedom. But behind all of these misguided actions is the proper desire for freedom. We want it, and God knows we want it.
Jesus said that he came to set us free, and that freedom comes with becoming his disciples and obeying his words. Freedom comes not through obeying our misguided impulses, but neither does freedom come through throwing off any possible master. We as human beings are not free, and we need a liberator to lead us to freedom. Jesus is the master and liberator who leads us to freedom.
Can a master lead you to freedom? Can you get freedom through obeying everything that a person tells you to do? It sounds like a paradox, but it isn't. If you are tangled up in chains, you would gladly obey the instructions of someone who was able, step by step to tell you how to become untangled. If you were trapped in a dark cave, you would gladly obey every instruction of a person who came to lead you to freedom. Jesus is the master, the Son of God, who died in order to lead us to freedom. He claims that he can do it. The only question is whether or not we trust him enough to follow his lead.
Now, when it comes to homosexuality, there is clarity that God's Word identifies it as a sinful activity. This means it is an activity that will not lead us to freedom, but instead to slavery. Like other sins, it offers us freedom because it offers us the opportunity to freely follow our impulses. Whether or not there is a genetic condition that leads to same-sex attractions, it is clear that some people will live a homosexual lifestyle if they freely follow their impulses.
Many of us want to ask why it leads to slavery instead of freedom. I think that we do have some answers to this question. We could conclude from the Bible that we are compromising our masculinity or femininity when we trade in heterosexuality for homosexuality (Romans 1). We could conclude that we overlook how God has made us (emotionally and also biologically), and thus miss out on the lives God has ordained for us. But we also must, to some extent, exercise faith in cases like these. There are many times, when following someone to freedom, that you must trust him without knowing why a certain path is necessary. Sometimes we must deny our appetites even though we are saying to God, "This other way seems better to me." In order for finite human beings to experience freedom, we must at some level be willing to trust the infinite God who sent his Son to purchase our freedom.
So, in the end, the biggest question does not concern the wrongness of homosexuality (or any sin). The biggest question concerns whether or not we trust Jesus to lead us to freedom. He claims that he can do it. Do we believe him?
If we do, then we all must be willing to say 'No' to a number of impulses in order to say 'Yes' to him and his leading.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Abortion and the Quest for Value

Today I had the privilege of meeting with some leaders from Assure Pregnancy Clinic in Ontario. We had a great conversation about their ministry and about the current state of the pro-life movement.
At one point I asked Sharon Sparks, the director, what she thought was the main message that needed to be heard by women seeking abortions. She said many wonderful things, but the first thing that she said was, "You are valued."
It is important to talk about the biblical teaching on abortion and the worldview issues that follow. It is important to talk about the medical issues surrounding abortion. It is important to talk about the guilt and shame and regret that so often follow the choice to abort a child.
At the same time, according to the staff of Assure, many of the women coming to the clinic believe that abortion is wrong (at least in most cases). The problem is not simply lack of education. The problem is that women feel cornered. Their parents or boyfriends (or sometimes husbands) are pressuring them to abort. Many times financial concerns enter into the decision. These pressures and concerns often drown out the ethical questions surrounding abortion. It can create a situation in which medical and Scriptural arguments fall on deaf ears.
But then there is Sharon's message. You are valued. You are important. You matter.
When we believe that we are important and valuable, an amazing thing happens. Suddenly, we feel empowered not to take the easy path, but the more difficult one.
There are times when my wife gives me encouragement as a husband, a father, a pastor, and a man. She speaks words that reinforce a deep value that I have in all of these roles. When I hear these life-giving words I am not inspired to sleep in, sit on the couch, watch TV, and overeat. Instead I am inspired to seek Christ more powerfully, invest in my kids more personally, pursue my wife more vigorously, and live for Christ more holistically. Her words of value make me want to take the more challenging path because this is more consistent with that idea that I am valued.
When we believe that we matter, we are empowered to make difficult decisions instead of taking the path of least resistance. We suddenly want to get off the couch and work hard at something. We suddenly want to recover from our addictions. And we suddenly want to care for a needy child instead of escaping from a difficult situation.
The Gospel of Jesus gives us the powerful situation that we are valued. We are not valued because we decide that we are. We are valued because God values us! he values us so much that he parted with his beloved Son in order to rescue us from sin and death! We are treasured by the Creator of the entire universe.
If we are going to make a difference in the lives of women, men, and unborn children, we must communicate the gospel value that they are treasured by God himself. I pray that we can boldly and joyfully embrace and communicate this truth. And I pray that this truth will drive all of us to choose the more challenging path of living as people who are deeply valued, rather than settling for the mediocre life of people who believe they are forgotten or ignored.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Freedom and Responsibility

This week our country was rocked by news of angry protests in response to an American-made anti-Islam film. Protests have taken place at U.S. embassies in Yemen, Egypt, and Tunisia, just to name a few. Many of the protests have turned violent.
There currently is anger directed both toward the violent Muslim protesters and also toward the mysterious producer of the anti-Islam film. Of course this is a sad situation, but it serves to bring up an interesting discussion about how freedom and responsibility work together.
Here are the arguments:
The producers are more at fault because they abused their freedom of speech in order to insult others.
The protesters are more at fault because being insulted is no excuse for responding with violence.
The Bible has something to say not only about this specific instance, but also about the larger issues of freedom and responsibility.
Two New Testament passages serve to encapsulate the New Testament teaching on these two concepts.
Galatians 5:13 says, You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love.
Similarly, 1 Peter 2:16 says, Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God's slaves.
It is important to understand that the freedom and responsibility in view here are not as citizens of the United States or Rome or Israel or any earthly kingdom. Rather, they are in view of our citizenship in God's kingdom. They are addressing the question, "How do responsibility and freedom work in the lives of those who have embraced Jesus Christ?"
Clearly, in these passages, the two concepts are meant to be complementary. There is real freedom in Christ. We are not held to stringent ceremonial laws. While we are given some clear guidelines (the clearest being love of neighbor), a lot is left to the wisdom and discretion of each believer. The freedom we have in Christ should be celebrated. The Apostle Paul goes to far as to say that if we embrace legalism in the face of what Christ has done for us, then Christ is doing us no good. We should revel in freedom.
But we should not abuse freedom. We should use it rightly. We should be responsible. We should use our freedom to find ways to love others in powerful and compelling ways. We should live as free and responsible citizens of the kingdom of God.
The producers of the film used their freedom. It is a freedom that is not only protected by the concept of free will, but also by the constitution of the United States. They were well within their rights to make the film.
That said, it was freedom ill-used. Instead of using their freedom to build others up, they used it to tear others down. And by doing this, they irresponsibly put Americans in danger.
Now, in this post I am not saying that hard truths should not be said. All the time believers in Jesus are called to speak truths which get us into trouble. When we reflect on God's Word on issues like sin, sexuality, gender, salvation, and eternity, it makes others mad.
But these producers, whoever they were (I have no reason to believe that they are believers), did not seem to have noble motives behind the film. It appeared to be a spiteful attempt to grab attention and incite controversy. For that, it is appropriate to hold them responsible for a foolish and selfish action.
At the same time, the Bible teaches another powerful and beautiful truth. Here it is: As beings created in God's image, no other person is responsible for our bad behavior. Others are responsible for the ways that they provoke us, insult us, and hurt us. But we are responsible when we respond to provocations and insults and pain with violent and sinful behavior.
The fact that we are responsible is good news.  Even those who have not been redeemed by Jesus are still blessed with the capacity for self-control. We are not simply victims, at the mercy of others. We are able to rise above the curses of others and respond with blessing. And those of us who are believers have an extra measure of power and motivation for this because we entrust ourselves to the judge of all the earth, and the Holy Spirit equips us to give peace when others give violence.
Those who have responded to insults with violence should not be excused. Not by our government. Not by the media. Not by anyone. Frankly, it is belittling to them if their behavior is excused. And it also certainly belittles the the loss of the victims of their violence.
Those who abused their freedom are not responsible for the violence, but they are certainly not innocent. They are responsible for their part. Their freedom is theirs to use and it should be defended by our government. But it was not a good use of the freedom our founders envisioned, nor the freedom our troops fight to protect.
 Most significantly, as believers this incident gives us insight. We must never use our freedom as Christians to excuse insulting, abusing, or neglectful behavior toward others. Our freedom is meant to give us more opportunities to love others. And we also must never excuse violent, hateful, and mocking responses to others just because of their bad behavior. In Christ we are blessed with the ability and the perspective that allows us to bless those who curse us.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Literal Godlessness

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post on the godlessness of Republicans chanting "We Built It" at the GOP Convention. Not surprisingly, it wasn't only the Republicans who displayed godlessness. The Democratic Convention exhibited its own powerful example of godlessness.
Here is the quick summary:
1. In 2008 the official Democratic platform had one mention of God. It said, "We need a government that stands up for the hopes, values, and interests of working people, and gives everyone willing to work hard the chance to make the most of their God-given potential."
2. In the current platform, there was no mention of God, but the parallel phrase replaced "God-given potential" with "talent and drive."
3. After being criticized for the elimination of God from their platform, the Democrats passed a motion that put him back in with an amendment that also officially recognized Jersualem as the capital of Israel. If you watch the video of the amendment, it is not clear whether it actually did pass. There seemed to be just as many "No's" as "Aye's." (As a sidenote, this has caused me and my friend Jason to laugh every time a vote comes up on our elder board.)
Now, what strikes me most about this issue is not that God was eliminated. Sometimes it is better to admit that God is not a part of your grid, rather than to include him for political advancement.
What strikes me most is what replaced God. God was replaced by OUR talents and OUR drive. This is convicting to me because these are the things that I normally use to replace God in my own life. Ipractice godlessness when I believe that MY talents and MY drive will take me where I want to go. Nevermind that everything I have, including my talents and drive, are gifts from God himself.
Godlessness is arrogance. It is arrogance when Republicans practice it by shouting, "We built it." It is arrogance when Democrats practice it by replacing "God" with "talents and drive." And it is arrogance when I practice it I don't pray to God, don't rely on God, and don't thank God, but rather rely on my own wisdom and talents and internal motivation.
Those of us who are believers have the privilege of living in an unashamed, absolute display of our dependence upon God. We are free from the need to prove ourselves because God alone justifies. We are free from trying to impress others because we boast in God alone. We are free from the need to defend ourselves because we know that we are broken sinners saved only through the divine sacrifice of the eternal Son of God!
Praise God that we are not only called not to be godless, but we are also set free from the need to be godless. Let's respond with prayerful, humble reliance on an all-powerful, all-good God.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Are You Driving Sin Out, or Putting It to Forced Labor?

There is a strange passage at the beginning of Judges that sums up the state of Israel at that time. Here is an except from Judges 1:27-30:
But Manasseh did not drive out the people of Beth Shan or Taanach or Dor or Ibleam or Megiddo and their surrounding settlements, for the Canaanites were determined to live in that land. When Israel became strong, they pressed the Canaanites into forced labor but never drove them out completely. Nor did Ephraim drive out the Canaanites living in Gezer, but the Canaanites continued to live among them. Neither did Zebulun drive out the Canaanites living in Kitron or Nahalol, so these Canaanites lived among them, but Zebulun did subject them to forced labor. Nor did Asher drive out. . .
You get the point. It goes on and on from there. Simple formula:
1) They did not drive them out.
2) Instead, they subjected them to forced labor.
Why does this matter? Be patient.
In Numbers 33:55-56, this is what God told the people:
But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land, those you allow to remain will become barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides. They will give you trouble in the land where you will live. And then I will do to you what I plan to do to them.
God specifically warns the people. Drive out the surrounding nations. Otherwise they will ensnare you in their idolatry and immorality. They will drag you down.
So, what did Israel do? Instead of driving them out, they kept them around and forced them to be their slaves.
And what happened? Exactly what God predicted: they got caught up in the idolatry and immorality of the people they had refused to drive out.

Here is the purpose for bringing this up. This is the exact way that we often deal with sin in our lives. We are called by God to drive it out. If we are struggling with lust, we are called to be completely pure with our eyes, our bodies, and our minds. If we are struggling with drunkenness or drugs, we are called to stop using them for that artificial, quick-fix high that they bring. If we are struggling with gossip or slander, we are called to stop and to speak about others the way we want them to speak about us. If we are struggling with pride, we are called to be completely humble. While we constantly deal with temptations and struggles, we are not called to drive out most of our sin, but to seek complete purity, making "no provision for the flesh" (Romans 13:14).

This by no means indicates that we are expecting to find complete freedom from our sin. It simply means that we don't intentionally allow an "acceptable" level of sin to linger around. With the power of the Holy Spirit, with the leading of Christ in our lives, and with the partnership of brothers and sisters in Christ, we can experience increased freedom from the influence of sin in our lives. But sometimes we decide that a little sin here and there is relatively harmless. We treat it as if it is no big deal.
Often this is exactly what we do. Instead of driving out sin, we put it to forced labor. We say to sin, "I am going to take over and be in charge. That means that physical violence is out. And adultery is out. And drunkenness is out. But, since I am in charge, I am going to say that dirty jokes, occasional fantasizing, and minor gossip get to stick around and do hard labor. Make no mistake, I am still in charge. But I will let these guys hang around as my slaves so that they can make me feel good every once in a while."
And, then, inevitably, we learn a hard lesson. We are never, ever in charge of sin. We let it stick around to serve us, but we end up serving it. Anyone who sins is a slave to sin, as Romans 6 tells us. When the Israelites put the Canaanites to forced labor, they ended up ensnared. And when we let "little" sins stick around, we end up enslaved.
We do this when we drive out promiscuous sex and one-night stands, but let monogamous sex outside of marriage stick around and serve us. We do this when we drive out harsh and biting comments directed toward our family, but let the same comments directed to political figures stick around and serve us. We do this when we drive out flagrant boasting about our accomplishments, but let subtle feelings of superiority stick around and serve us.

We put sin to forced labor anytime we buy into the idea that we can control its impact upon us. The Israelites quickly learned that they were not in charge of the extent to which the Canaanites influenced them. And because of this, their lives and their nation became a shipwreck. Let's not buy the lie that we can let white lies, light lust, and subtle pride stick around and serve us. Sin never serves us. But we often serve it.