Recovering our Fear

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Advent is a season of waiting… remembering Israel’s wait for Christ to come, and the Church’s wait for his return in glory. As we wait, it is so easy to lose focus and get busied with routine joys and routine troubles while forgetting about Christ at all. This isn’t a new struggle.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German pastor in the days leading up to World War II and was persecuted (and eventually killed at Hitler’s direct command) for his role in opposing the Nazi regime. The following quote comes from Bonhoeffer’s sermon on the first Sunday of Advent in 1935 as Hitler’s power in Germany was increasing. Keep Bonhoeffer’s context in mind as you read this excerpt from this Advent sermon based out of Revelation 14:6-13.

And the speech of the angel is so simple that anyone could understand it: “fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment is come. Worship him who made the heavens, the earth, the sea, and the springs of water.” That is the first command of the gospel. “Fear God” and you will have nothing else to fear.

Don’t fear what the next day may bring. Don’t fear other people. Don’t fear violence and power, even when it comes to you personally and can rob you of your life. Don’t fear the high and mighty in the world. Don’t fear yourself. Don’t fear your sins. All these fears will die. From all these fears you will be set free. For they are no longer there. But fear God and him alone. For he has the power over all the powers of this world. The whole world is in fear of God. He has power to give us life or to destroy us. All other powers are a mere game.

God alone is real, seriously real. Fear God seriously and “give him the glory.” He would be acknowledged as the creator, as our creator; he would be acknowledged as the reconciler, who has made peace between God and man; he would be acknowledged as redeemer, who at the end sets us free from all our sins and all our burdens. Honor him and his holy gospel, “because the hour of his judgment is come.” And this judgment is the gospel itself. The eternal gospel is the judge of all peoples.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Remembrance Sunday: Who and What is Babylon?” in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Christmas Sermons (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005), 111.

Bonhoeffer emphasizes throughout the remainder of the sermon that the gospel is the only message of salvation. Even while he states, “The eternal gospel is the judge of all peoples,” it is important to hear the rest of his message about the gospel – it is not a message of damnation, but of reconciliation with God and freedom from all fears. It is only through the gospel that men and women can live with the right kind of fear: fear of God.

However you approach the Christmas season, and much is often made about how difficult this season is for many, let this be a time to reset your fear. Do not fear death. Do not fear judgment. Do not fear all sorts of other fearful things…. fear God. For in the end, when everything else has been subject to judgment, He remains. He is victorious. This is Good News indeed.

How Can a Good God Allow Suffering?

Isolation

The problem of pain and suffering is probably the greatest cause for people losing faith. That makes sense. It does seem like a good God who is also an all-powerful God should snuff out suffering and prevent it from ever happening. Terrible things happen to some really wonderful people, and it doesn’t always make sense. So how can we continue to live by faith and trust in God?

The existence of suffering comes down to these three realities:

  1. We are not robots. God created us with freewill. Every Christian believes this (not only Arminians). It is incredibly ironic to criticize God for allowing suffering while also shaking your fist at him and telling him to stay out of your life. You can’t have it both ways… God gave us responsibility, and we need to own that.
  2. We make a train wreck of our lives and of the world. Pointing all the way back to the first humans, Adam and Eve, we have a way of choosing sin over righteousness. We aren’t as sinful as we could be, but we are all sinners and that has effected everything in our world: our relationship with God, with others, with ourselves, and with nature. We know things aren’t “the way they’re supposed to be,” but our efforts often make things worse, not better. God must intervene somehow.
  3. God has a greater dream for our lives than we could imagine for ourselves. While we try to define a successful life by our bank account, or family, or power, or influence, or whatever… God has a greater dream for us. The truth is, our dream is not too big for God, but too small! Because of sin, there will be a day of judgment to make things right, and suffering is often God’s warning light calling us to repentance now before it’s too late.

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Daily Living in Light of Eternity: The New Heavens and New Earth

When you think about “heaven,” what comes to mind?

Many people think about about clouds, white light, pearly gates, and eternal happiness. My mind was completely blown when I discovered that Scripture teaches about eternity as a physical life. I had always imagined that heaven would be some disembodied life, floating around as spirits who are worshipping before God’s throne.

But the Bible consistently teaches about an eternal, earthly kingdom where God’s people will live. The New Testament calls this the “New Heavens and New Earth.” Here just a few places in Scripture that point to our future eternal-bodily life.

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Christian Hope is Not a Wish

Sunrise

Hope is more than a wish. It’s a confident expectation that the future is bright and that good things await. A wish, however, is a shot-in-the-dark… like heading into a test that you didn’t study for, and just wishing to do well. Hope is built on a foundation; wishes float “out there” without any real substance.

The Christian life is built on a foundation of hope, not upon a wish.

The Foundation of Christian Hope
One of my favorite people in the Bible is the Apostle Thomas. After Jesus’ death, all the disciples were in the Upper Room when Jesus suddenly appeared (even though the doors were all locked, because they were afraid of being arrested). The disciples saw Jesus, talked with him, and were astounded that he was alive again. They had heard the rumors, but now they saw him with their own eyes. But Thomas wasn’t there. In days that followed, Thomas would insist that he wouldn’t believe unless he could put his fingers in the holes in Jesus’ hands. That week must have been excruciating for Thomas… feeling hopeless while everyone else is full of hope.

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A Refuge in the Tragedies of Life

How do we move on after great tragedies? Especially when they seem to happen every week? 27 dead in a church shooting. 8 dead in New York by a man who drive his truck into a bicycle path. 58 dead in Las Vegas at a concert. And that’s all within the last month of this article’s publication.

In a way, asking “How do we move on” is the wrong question. We don’t “move on.” We shouldn’t. But… where do you go from here? How do you continue living without the burden of fear and anxiety at every turn?

People either call for political reform to ensure future safety, or they turn to prayer without seeking worldly solutions. As Christians, how do we think about and process these tragedies?

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What’s Wrong With the World?

Acts of violence and hatred have become so common we’ve become numb. Whether it’s another act of terrorism, a school shooting, or an incident of domestic violence, it has become far too easy to read the story and then move on with our lives.

I doubt anyone can look around and think, “Yeah, this is the way things should be.” No. Instead, we hear people giving their solutions to fix the problem: More education, Better laws, Tolerance of differences. We need to understand the problem before we can offer any helpful solutions.

Christians turn to Scripture to understand the world, and we know this is not the way God created the world. Sin always brings death – not immediate physical death, but death of relationships, trust, intimacy, etc. Christians throughout history have called this event “the fall,” because sin made all creation fall from holiness and shalom/peace. Where there was unity and peace, now there is division and conflict. The opening chapters of Genesis unpack the multiple relationships that have lost shalom because of the curse of sin…

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Can I be Sure I’m Going to Heaven?

My youth group recently began a study on “The End: Hard Questions About Eternity.” In preparation for that series, I sent a survey to students asking for their questions about heaven, hell, along with other issues. The overwhelmingly most common question was this:

What if I don’t go to heaven?
What if I go to hell?

This isn’t a fear that only teenagers struggle with. I’ve talked with many Christians who struggle with assurance of their salvation and eternal destiny. Assurance is simply confidence that something will happen… so the question is this: Is there eternal assurance for the Christian?

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Suffering is the Furnace of Godliness

 

How can you trust a God who lets you suffer?

That’s a question many people simply cannot get over, and frankly… it’s a good question! The problem of suffering is legit and real and difficult. Rather than  attempting to “solve” the question, I hope to share what may be a fresh perspective.

If we approach the question of suffering with the expectation that God owes us happiness and comfort, then we need to admit we’re holding God to promises he never made. The “American Dream” is never promised anywhere in Scripture. In fact, there are many places where God promises his people they will suffer because of their righteousness. 

Romans 8:28-29 is a much-quoted verse to bring comfort in the midst of suffering. Often it is shared in a way that says, “God will make it all ok. It will turn out good for you.” But that isn’t what this passage says. In fact, it says something much better…

“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son….”

Like the silversmith who purifies silver in a furnace or with a blowtorch, the impurities come to the surface in the heat. When they are wiped away, the purified silver will reflect the silversmith’s face when he looks into it.

Suffering is the furnace of our godliness. It is the way God purifies his children so they reflect him more clearly in a sinful world. 

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Suffering and the Problem of Evil

Today marks the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorism attack on New York City and the Pentagon. In the midst of such commemorations, it’s important to ask ourselves (and to allow others to ask) hard questions. The Problem of Evil is among the most difficult topics to address.

Traditionally, the problem of evil is stated in three sentences, of which one supposedly cannot be true:

Suffering exists in the world

God is sovereign and in control of the world

God is good and loving.

Even some Christians attempt to “let God off the hook” by minimizing the pain of suffering. Hope gives strength to endure, but it does not mean suffering isn’t painful. Minimizing the legitimacy of suffering as a cause for doubt is intellectually dishonest and emotionally callous.

Yet, some defend God’s goodness by saying that he would stop all suffering and pain if he could. They determine any number of reasons why God can’t, but in the end, he would stop it if he could but he can’t. This version of God is kind and gentle, but powerless to save and unworthy of reverent worship.

Another response upholds God’s holiness but seems to minimize his compassion for the people who endure such suffering and pain. This God is holy and worthy of worship, but he is difficult to love.

One of the best Christian responses to the problem of evil comes through Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. At this point in the book/movie, all hope seems lost as the Dark Lord Sauron is growing in power and hope seems to be fading in Frodo and his team’s quest to destroy the ring of power. As Frodo is overwhelmed by the impossibility of success, he has the following dialogue with his friend and compatriot, Sam:

(I know you’re probably tempted to skip over this video. Don’t. It’s 2:30 long, and brilliant. If you’re somewhere public so you can’t listen, read the text HERE and watch it later, this scene is really just that good.) 

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Hope for Orlando and the LGBTQ Community

We’re all trying to digest the tragedy in Orlando: 50 people are dead and many more injured after the largest mass-shooting in America at a gay nightclub. The gunman has pledged allegiance to ISIS and many are pointing fingers at Islam. He used two guns he legally purchased last week, despite being on an FBI watchlist.

One thing is for certain: there’s a problem. And it’s so big no law will fix it. That doesn’t mean laws aren’t good or helpful or necessary. But they aren’t enough.

The temptation to live in fear is very present. But living in fear only means your potential for survival is higher. It’s no secret the gay community believes the Church is full of judgmental bigots who think their sin is worse than our own.

My question is this: Will we prove them right (by offering cold-hearted sympathy), or will we show them we aren’t who they think we are?

Dead Tree Forest

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