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in Life

Being God-Centered About Our Politics

I grew up in a Baptist church in the 70s. The Bible was revered as God’s Word and the Gospel was preached. And Sunday School was king, at least in terms of being a priority for attendance.

The Sunday School curriculum in those days usually revolved around a series of biblical men and women: Moses, Daniel, David, Esther, and, of course, Jesus. The lessons were often filled with history and character traits. The family of Moses took great risk to save his infant life. Daniel showed unyielding faithfulness to God even when his life was threatened. David was a brave shepherd boy who killed a giant. And Esther combined wisdom and courage to save the Jewish people.

The moral of each story was roughly along the lines of how God blessed each of them for their faithfulness and courage, and the application was that God will bless you too, if you are faithful and brave.

It was probably about 20 years ago that an article about Sunday School curriculum reshaped my thinking and helped me see what now seems so obvious: Those stories were meant to do what all of Scripture does: to focus me fully on the God of Moses and Daniel and David and Esther. Each one calls me to see that God was the hero and is worthy of my worship. Yes, the Bible urges me to be faithful and even courageous as a follower of Jesus Christ, but only as I humbly depend on His strength. If anything worthwhile is accomplished through my life for Christ’s kingdom, it is because of Him; whatever strength I possess is in Him, supplied by Him, and for His glory.

This struck me today as I thought about politics and government: it’s a realm where even Christ-loving believers are still tempted to be man-centered, and to see the world in terms of heroes and villains. We talk of history with a kind of sacred reverence for our Founding Fathers. We want their records to remain largely unblemished. And our politics, like it or not, tends to revolve about particular men and women. Yes, we hold to ideas of how government should run, but more often than not, those ideas are embodied in the heroes who lead the fight for those principles, and our heroes must defeat the other side’s villains.

As many of you know, I spent nine years outside of full-time pastoral ministry, working in politics. My thoughts yesterday were of terrified Hill staffers; the ones who often answer the phones and lead the tours. Within their first weeks in a congressional office, they discover that it’s sadly normal to field angry, demanding, curse-filled phone calls.

As a staffer, there’s a certain level of loyalty ingrained in your thinking. That’s not necessarily bad; if I commit to work for an elected leader, I should be committed to support and defend his or her agenda, even as he or she has pledged to uphold the Constitution.

But the reality is that politics revolves around politicians. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Hill staffer or a voter, your values tend to be wrapped up in the candidate who will speak up for the ideas you believe, and who will tweet about them, and pledge to fight for them. At the same time, our culture has encouraged a kind of thinking that makes my politician virtually flawless, and yours to be completely wrong about virtually everything. In fact, the other side is terrible and misguided.

But here’s the point: politics and government are realms where Christians still tend to excuse man-centeredness. Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln are heroes, period. Criticism of their flaws is not tolerated. My candidate today should be elected and re-elected because he or she fights for the right agenda. Criticism of my candidate is dismissed as fake because it only represents vilification by the press or the opposition. And the candidate who represents that opposition is not just wrong on the ideas, he or she will almost single-handedly destroy the country. If you don’t believe that, just search “lost our country” on Twitter.

The man-centeredness of our politics can be blinding. It’s become political self-destruction for an elected official to admit being wrong, but even the normal response of his or her supporters to criticism is to ignore it and to respond with, “What about (fill in an opponent’s name)? He’s done far worse,” and then run off a list of that person’s sins, while looking away from the charges against our guy.

The Bible doesn’t allow us to get man-centered. Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David all acted on great faith in God, but their sins are also on full display in the Scriptures. Peter preached boldly in Jerusalem but was publicly confronted by Paul for his hypocrisy. Paul had a violent past and recognized himself as the chief of sinners. They’re all exposed, not to encourage us to point fingers and rail against them, but rather to help us identify with them. We know our own hearts well enough – our own anger, and bitterness, and lust, and dishonesty – that when we see it in people in the Bible it reminds us of how desperately we all need the soul-baring conviction of God’s truth and the relief of His grace.

So do our elected officials, all of them – the ones I voted for and those on the “other side.”

It serves no Godly good for us to revere political leaders as heroes and to ignore their sinful frailty, their foolishness, and the things they have done wrong because to say so might seem to give a win to the other side. Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Roosevelt, Reagan, Obama, and Trump only served as presidents because the God of the universe raised them up to that position. If they had accomplishments that benefitted the American people, it was due to the kindness of God’s providence. That our country today enjoys freedoms many in the world do not is a reflection of the mercy God has shown to our country, not because of our Founding Fathers, but in spite of them.

The world apart from the saving grace of Jesus Christ is expected to have blind spots. Those who don’t understand the depravity of man or the grace of God from a biblical perspective can be expected to blameshift criticism. When Trump is called bad, his followers cry, “But Obama did this and Biden will do that,” and vice versa.

That should not be how we as Christians view politics and our elected officials. They are flawed and sinful, and as in need of God’s grace as you and I. From the perspective of the law, they must be held accountable, but from our vantage point they should also be prayed for, with the recognition that their most desperate need is the same as that for every man and woman – the saving grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, through faith in His gospel.

We dare not rally around them as those old Sunday School curriculums would, touting humans and their courage. Rather, we must acknowledge that they are sinners who do what sinners do – they let their anger get the best of them, they make foolish decisions, they say things that are unwise, ungracious, and unkind. And we don’t need to defend those things, nor should we believe that everything they say is right and true.

What we must do is keep pointing to the one ruler who is perfect and good in all of His ways, our Savior, Jesus Christ.

The fact that our country is strong and has survived December 7, 1941, and 9/11, and now January 6, 2021 is fully the result of God’s grace and strength, working through the means of sinful men and women. It is His unmerited favor and common grace on an undeserving people. “God bless America” is more than just the closing line of a speech, it is the truth that explains whatever favor He has shown us. Jesus Christ is our true hero who alone is worthy of praise.

in Life

The Meaning of Life

We are a forgetful people. The Bible uses a lot of repetition and reminders because God knows our tendency to forget; to forget warnings that would spare us from harm, or to forget truths that offer joy and peace in the midst of trying times.

At too many points in life, and especially when we’re young, we’re also prone to forget that the years are racing by and our time is short.

Perhaps it’s that tendency to forget, especially among the young, that prompts the command which begins the last chapter of Ecclesiastes.

Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth,
before the evil days come and the years draw near of
which you will say, “I have no pleasure in them.”
Ecclesiastes 12:1

Much of Ecclesiastes hinges on the words, “under the sun,” a phrase that depicts how most of the world looks at life. They are focused on the here and now, grasping for meaning and significance in things like work, pleasure, accomplishments, and knowledge; none of which offers real and lasting substance. They’re all fleeting - here for a moment like the smoke from a fire, appearing and then vanishing.

But, Ecclesiastes 12:1 urges us to remember our Creator. The Hebrew word for remember is not merely recalling facts, like don’t forget where you left your keys. It also implies thinking about something or meditating on it. So, it’s not merely remembering the fact of who God is or that He exists. It is meditating on who God is, as He has revealed Himself in His Word.

One writer put it this way: “It is best that we reflect upon these realities when we are young so that there will be fewer regrets and fewer missed opportunities… Wisdom helps us avoid later lamenting the times we were given but did not receive with thankfulness.” Jeffrey Meyers

Meditate on God now; avoid regrets years later, when physical challenges and limitations may creep in and distract us from meditating on Him.
At that point, the writer of Ecclesiastes uses a variety of illustrations to lament the physical effects of aging in a fallen world. Our eyesight starts to fail. Our body breaks down. Our strength diminishes. Our hearing grows weaker.

These are simply the harsh realities of growing old. Balance begins to fade. The fear of falling increases. Activities that once seemed normal now have an element of terror.

Ecclesiastes 12:5 says we are moving ever closer to that day of passing from here to our eternal home. It may seem like a harsh reality, but it is God’s kind way of warning us that our lives are fleeting. And we must remember our Creator…

before the silver cord is snapped, or the golden bowl is
broken, or the pitcher is shattered at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern,
Ecclesiastes 12:6

That final illustration compares our bodies to earthen vessels. There’s a beautiful golden lamp in the house that’s suspended by a silver chain, and a pitcher attached to a pulley that is dropped into a well. When the chain snaps or the wheel of the pulley breaks, the lamp and the pitcher fall. They are shattered, and no longer useful. The oil in the lamp and the water in the pitcher pour out on the ground, in a picture of life ebbing away and leaving the body.

“…the pictures of verse 6 capture the beauty and
fragility of the human frame; a masterpiece as
delicately wrought as any work of art, yet as breakable
as a piece of earthenware, and as useless in the end as
a broken wheel.”  -- Derek Kidner

With the closing act of life under the sun, each and every person will stand accountable before the Creator. With that, the writer of Ecclesiastes repeats a familiar phrase:

Vanity of vanities, says the preacher; all is vanity.
Ecclesiastes 12:8

The teacher ends exactly where he began. But, he’s not throwing his hands up at the end to say, “It’s all just meaningless.”

Instead, he’s once again using the Hebrew word Hebel to reinforce his fundamental message that our lives are fleeting. If you put all of your chips into finding peace and pleasure solely in this life, you’ll be disappointed. All of this will end, so clinging to it will prove futile.

As science has affirmed, matter is deteriorating. It’s falling apart. Material things are not eternal.

We cannot stop that slide or postpone the inevitability of death. Our bodies and the world around us that is under the sun, are all wearing out and fleeting, so it’s futile to stake your meaning and hope and joy in them.

It may be tempting to see the madness and futility and fleeting nature of life, and to conclude, “What’s the point? Stuff happens to me that I can’t control. It’s like I’m running on a hamster wheel. So, why bother?

Here’s the answer:

The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and
keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of
man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with
every secret thing, whether good or evil.
Ecclesiastes 12:13-14

In the end, everything does matter. Our lives, our thoughts, our actions, our inactions all happen in the presence of the God who made us and sustains us, so there are no throw-away moments that are utterly meaningless. Even when you feel like no one is watching and no one cares, God is watching, and He cares.

Ecclesiastes is meant to teach you how to live in the valley of the shadow of death, even when you don’t think you’re in that valley. You are closer to standing before God than you think.

Thus, the call to “remember your Creator.” Everything is fleeting, except for God and your soul. The one eternal rock we can cling to who is not wearing out is the God who made you. And, we are His creatures. So, think about Him. Regard Him in all you do. Believe in His Son, Jesus Christ, who gave His life to die on the cross to save sinners and to give them abundant new life.

The chief duty of man in the short time we have in this life under the sun is to know God and to trust in Him. It is to recognize that our lives are a gift from the Creator, and our greatest joy is living in awe of Him and joyfully following Him.

in Life

Learning Contentment | Part 2

Discontentment can settle in my heart with such ease. The grass really does seem greener in my neighbor’s yard. No matter what model car I drive or phone I own, there’s a glitzy ad for something better and faster. Even the favorable circumstances that I see in someone else’s life can cause me to lose my contentment.

As we read last time, when we looked at Philippians 4:11, contentment is a heart attitude that must be learned. It doesn’t come naturally.

Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.

But now, look at verse 12…

I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.

We’re tempted to assume that verse 12 must be an exaggeration. Paul couldn’t possibly have experienced contentment “in any and every circumstance,” could he? That means even in prison, when he was stripped down to nothing, Paul still was able to possess contentment.

But that’s what it says. God’s Word is teaching that contentment is durable.

The attitude of contentment accompanied Paul no matter where he was in life: Up, down, high, low, with plenty, with nothing, full, or hungry, in any and every circumstance.

I know what it is to be humbled, to be broken down. I know the experience of excelling and possessing riches, but I’ve also been in poverty. My stomach has ached with hunger, and I know what it’s like to leave the table full.

Through it all, Paul wrote, the contentment I feel is just as real through the good as it is in the bad.

There’s an interesting word in verse 12, where Paul wrote, “I have learned the secret.” This is different from the kind of learning he spoke of back in verse 11. This phrase in verse 12 is actually a single word in the Greek – it’s a verb that means to be initiated into a mystery.

Paul was using language of the day to illustrate what he meant when he said that he had learned to be content in whatever situation he faced. Verse 12 is saying, “I mean anysituation. This attitude that God graciously taught me, has accompanied me as I’ve faced plenty, hunger, abundance and need.”

Here’s the point: Circumstances will change; but contentment doesn’t have to.

Contentment is a heart attitude that God designed, and He’s teaching us to experience and enjoy it as a constant throughout all of life, in every circumstance. It is durable.

At this point, we desperately need verse 13. God’s Word has described to us a learned attitude of sufficiency, of feeling complete and not in need, that can be present in any and every circumstance. So, where do we find this attitude? How is it acquired?

I can do all things through him who strengthens me.

Biblical contentment is learned. It is a heart attitude. It is durable through life’s circumstance, and finally, real contentment is sufficiency in Christ.

Here’s what all of this is getting at: Jesus Christ must be your sufficiency. Jesus Christ must become the center of your joy and peace and satisfaction and contentment. Knowing Christ must be enough in any and every circumstance. So, when things aren’t going well, and you don’t feel like you’re being treated well, contentment is being able to say, “But I have Christ. What more do I really need?”

Most of us have either quoted Philippians 4:13 or heard it quoted at some point, apart from its context. “I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me.” When lifted out of the larger message of Philippians, it sounds like magic.

But, what defines “all things”? In the Greek, all is the first word in this phrase, because Paul is using all to connect back to the same Greek word for all that he just used in verse 12 when he spoke of any and every kind of circumstance. In other words, in every moment, high and low. Through the best and worst circumstances of life, the joys and heartbreaks, believers in Jesus Christ are being uniquely trained to experience a heart attitude of contentment.

And the Greek verb at the start of v. 13 is not just “I do,” as in I do all things. It speaks of ability or strength or competency to do something. And it’s present tense. It’s not just the promise of a future experience of contentment, as if I, potentially, may find sufficiency in Christ. No. Paul is saying that as a result of Him who is empowering, he was constantly being enabled for all of these different circumstances. That ability is being ministered to me through all of the different situations I face, by the one who strengthens me.

To put it another way, Paul’s sufficiency was entirely due to the abundant sufficiency of Jesus Christ. And so is ours.

It is God’s design that our union with Jesus Christ provide the sufficient source of contentment in any and every circumstance.

Think about it this way: The king over creation, existing as God in heaven, gave up His place in heaven to become a servant in order to die for my sin. I deserve nothing but the judgment and wrath of God, but instead, I have been delivered from that forever, into a new kingdom, by Jesus dying in my place, rising over death, and now joining my life to His.

Contentment rests on who Jesus Christ is and what He’s done. The Son of God demonstrated the exact opposite of circumstance-based contentment, when He emptied himself, took the form of a servant, was born in the likeness of men, and humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. That’s the message of the book of Philippians.

That’s why, in chapter 1, Paul wrote, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” If my mood and my behavior rest on how I feel about my looks, or my job, or my spouse, or where I live, or my paycheck, or any of the circumstances of my day… if those things are determining my contentment, I will never be content. Because my heart will be like Adam and Eve in the garden thinking, “I still need one more thing.”

But if my heart comes to grip with the fact that I have nothing of any eternal value apart from Christ, and that I have everything I need for this life and the one to come in Christ, then God, by His grace, is teaching me to be content. He’s empowering me to trust that Jesus is sufficient.

Think about Paul, writing this letter. He had preached in so many cities and planted so many churches, now sitting in prison, his only audience being the handful of guards who watched him.

He must’ve been tempted to think, “God, why have you left me here? I could be out preaching. Instead I’m stuck here.” But, the truth Paul had learned, that God’s Spirit longs to teach you and I, is that Paul, like you and I, didn’t deserve any more than He had. God had been abundantly gracious, and, even in prison, Paul was being fully strengthened from within by His union with Christ.

And, as if to prove Paul’s point, God was using Paul, while he was in prison, to communicate truth that is still serving and teaching us more than 2,000 years later. What looked like the worst of circumstances, was actually being used by God to teach generations to come for thousands of years.

We must see our circumstances as ordained by a loving and gracious God, and then we must rest in His goodness and power, and trust that He knows best, and give thanks for exactly where He has us. We don’t deserve abundance and full bellies. We don’t have a right to live comfortably.

One lesson of Philippians is to hold what we have loosely, and to know that if and when God takes it all away, we will still have Christ.

Hebrews 13:5 says, "Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, 'I will never leave you nor forsake you.'"

There it is again. Don’t get dragged into discontentment. Whatever you have is a gift from the kindness of God. Thank Him for it. Praise Him for His grace.

And whatever you don’t have is a reminder that Jesus will never leave you or forsake you. And He is enough.