Monday, August 21, 2017

The Kind of Inventiveness We Don’t Need

Have you ever marveled at the creativity and inventiveness of the human mind? I remember as a boy learning about Alexander Graham Bell inventing the telephone, Eli Whitney the cotton gin, and Guglielmo Marconi the telegraph.

Considered America’s greatest inventor, Thomas Edison introduced incandescent lightbulbs, the phonograph and many other devices that changed our lives and paved the way for other wonderful innovations. Necessity might be the mother of invention, but Mr. Edison might have been its father.

We benefit from human inventiveness in many
ways - but not always. It also has a dark side.
We could name many other notables, ranging from Henry Ford to George Washington Carver to the Wright brothers. Thanks to Elisha Otis, every time we get on elevators, they don’t plummet to the bottom level. Perhaps more than anyone else, his career had its ups and downs.

Unfortunately, inventions that serve the common good can also be utilized to accomplish all manner of nefarious deeds. Spending time around little kids, we can witness how inventive they can be for getting into mischief. Toddlers sleep a lot, and I think they dream primarily about what they can do to annoy mom and dad.

Inventiveness for the sake of wrongdoing doesn’t disappear with the passage of years. Adults also have an endless capacity for imagining ways to do bad, even with good things. Take the internet, for example. It’s essentially neutral. A means for disseminating information; enabling people to communicate quickly and efficiently with one another; and shrinking the world so we can reach out electronically and touch someone many thousands of miles and multiple time zones away.

Unfortunately, clever – and malevolent – minds have figured out many ways to do bad stuff with this essentially wonderful resource we used to call the “worldwide web”: Scams – have you gotten an email from a Nigerian prince lately? Viruses to infect the computers we now rely on so much. Computer pornography to addict the minds of viewers who believe they can indulge in mental garbage without causing harm to anyone – except for cherished relationships, work productivity, and their perceptions of the real world. Hateful expressions on social media range from simple ridicule to shameless, menacing bullying of vulnerable, sensitive people.

Technology may have changed dramatically through the centuries; the propensity for distorting our inventive capacities for harmful, destructive intentions has not.

Paul the apostle wrote about this in the opening chapter of his letter to believers in the early church in Rome, commenting on the state of those who consciously rebelled against God: “…they invent ways of doing evil” (Romans 1:30).

What was the purpose of this evil inventiveness? Paul explained earlier in the chapter, “For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles” (Romans 1:21-23).

A few verses later, the apostle gets more specific: “They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful…” (Romans 1:29-31).

This entire chapter was a powerful indictment of society nearly 2,000 years ago, but even a casual glance at our world shows things haven’t changed much since then.

Years ago, a popular paraphrase of the Bible was called Good News for Modern Man. The early chapters of the book of Romans, however, sound more like “bad news about modern man.”

Thankfully, even when it appears humanity at its worst is on the rise, we have the assurance God hasn’t lost His capability to turn bad into good, making wrong into right. As Joseph said, after being reunited in Egypt with his jealous, vindictive brothers who had sold him into slavery years before, You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Genesis 50:20).

Even at the worst of times we can trust in the assurance Paul offered later in his letter to those in Rome, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose(Romans 8:28).

No matter how inventive humanity tries to be for conjuring up evil in new forms, God’s still in control – and can still use bad things to achieve His good purposes.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Worshiping at the Altar of Self

“Self” certainly receives a lot of attention these days. Go into any bookstore, library or newsstand and we’ll find complete sections devoted to “self-help.” Topics range from how to take good photos to cooking to home repairs and renovation. Books and publications also promise to teach us how to become rich, stay healthy, and become fluent in a foreign language in just 30 days.

These days we don’t even need to venture outside the home for self-help assistance. Google and other search engines guide us to whatever self-help information we need. YouTube offers video tutorials of virtually everything, from installing new software to building birdhouses. If you’re facing major surgery, you can even find videos showing what you’re about to go through (if you’re brave enough to look).

We all need help in these or other areas, and after all, doesn’t the Bible say, “God helps those that help themselves”? Uh, no, it does not – but that’s a subject for another day. The point is, we live in a society enraptured with Self, and not just in the self-help sense.

We often hear people talk about self-fulfillment. Speakers talk to us about self-actualization and self-realization. Counselors provide clients with tips for self-determination. Parents fret over protecting their children’s self-image. Hence, “participation trophies” for everyone, whether they did anything of merit or not. We don’t want Jimmy to think he’s not as good as Johnny. Heaven forbid!

Thanks to the convenience of smartphones, “selfies” are only an arm’s length away. I’ve heard people say they enjoy being with only three friends – “me, myself, and I.” There’s even a magazine called Self. Yes, Self seems to be the center of attention just about everywhere we go.

The problem is, the Bible teaches a secret to successfully living God’s way is learning to take the focus off Self. For instance, Philippians 2:3-4 teaches, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.” Whoa! Not exactly what Self wants to hear.

It doesn’t stop there. Jesus explained what it requires to be His true follower: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it” (Luke 9:23-24).

Not long after that, Jesus became the ultimate role model, willingly enduring scorn and ridicule, torture, and then crucifixion, not because of anything He had done or deserved, but because we all owed a great penalty for our sins – a price we couldn’t begin to pay – so He paid the full price Himself, giving His life on our behalf. God incarnate denying self.

The apostle Paul, once as full of Self as anyone who ever walked the earth, understood well the importance of denying self. He declared, “I die daily” (1 Corinthians 15:31), not referring to physical death but death to the desires and demands of self, so that he might serve Christ more effectively and consistently.

To believers in the church in Rome, Paul wrote, “…just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life…. In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness” (Romans 6:4-13).

Seems God is telling us, if we needing help in how to craft a compelling resume for a new job, hit a golf ball straighter, or bake a special cake for the holidays, by all means seek out all of the self-help we need. However, if our desire is to learn how to love God and others, and to serve Him and those He sends our way, it’s a good idea to shove Self out of the way and let Him take control.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Are We Reciprocating the Love?

When life seems spiraling downward, does our love for God remain constant?
Not long ago I wrote about the oft-quoted biblical declaration, “God is love,” what we think it means, and what it really means. There’s another side to this truth we should consider: Are we reciprocating that love?

A friend, David, now in his early 50s, has dealt with a congenital disease that has presented major health challenges throughout his life. As a husband, father and businessman, he could express bitterness and frustration over the adversity that has become a constant, if unwelcomed, companion. Instead, he and his family have used it as an opportunity to strengthen their faith and become powerful witnesses for Jesus Christ to others. Here’s is what he wrote recently:

“I hear so many Christian songs speaking the truths of ‘how much God loves us.’ We sing, ‘Jesus loves me, this I know....’ This is a truth to which we all cling. However, I ask the simple question: ‘Do WE love Him?’ Is our love for Him dependent on things going great (in our lives)? Learning to love Him, when the world is against us, or things aren't going our way, is the kind of love He wants from us. His love for us is never in question. The question is, do we love Him? Do we love Him during all of life's challenges? I suggest that this kind of love glorifies God and demonstrates His power more than the conditional love we often have for God.” 

Despite decades of suffering and setbacks, David has gained wisdom and perspective that many of us never attain. We reason that if God really loves us, He’ll make our lives good and comfortable and prosperous. The so-called “health and wealth gospel” helps to propagate such beliefs. However, that’s not what the Scriptures reveal for us.

Throughout the Bible we find accounts of the all-powerful God allowing His people to endure hardships in various forms. From Abraham and Sarah going childless until late in life, to Moses and the Israelites wandering in the wilderness for 40 years, to the apostle Paul being subjected to torture, infirmities, even shipwreck while seeking to spread the good news of Jesus Christ, we see God never promised His followers “rose garden” lives.

To the contrary, we read passages that seem to assure just the opposite. For instance: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:2-4). 

Romans 5:3-5 affirms this, stating, “Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, who he has given us.”

The Scriptures make it clear God’s love for His children is limitless and unconditional. So, the question, as my friend suggests, is do we love Him? When things don’t go our way, when we find ourselves in “the valley of the shadow of death,” as Psalm 23 describes it, is our love for God constant – our trust in Him unwavering?

How can we even know if we truly love the Lord, that we’re not just experiencing some brief emotional state during a worship service or when listening to a song of praise? Jesus was straight forward in explaining what loving God should look like:
“If you love me, you will obey what I command…. Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me. He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him” (John 15:15-21).

The next time we find ourselves reflecting on the scriptural teaching that “God is love,” maybe we should also ask ourselves the penetrating, even convicting question, “Yes, but do I love God?” And if we say that we do, is there any evidence to prove it – even in the midst of challenging, difficult times?