Monday, March 29, 2021

The Truth, the Half Truth, and the Varnished Truth

The other day I was listening to the radio when I heard a song with the recurring refrain, “Truth be told, the truth is rarely told.” For those not familiar with this tune, these words aren’t a musical critique of today’s media. Nor is it a song about politicians, although for some it might ring true for that arena.


Actually, the song by Matthew West is a comment about the Church. Founded by the One who declared Himself to be “the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6), it should be the one place where truth is paramount, where its members can be honest and feel the freedom to be open and candid with one another. Sadly, in many instances, it’s not.


Somewhere along the line, people have learned that they’re not supposed to tell how things truly are. We emerge from our cars in the church parking lot and spot someone we know who greets us with, “Hi! How are you?” We reply something like “Great!” or, “Couldn’t be better!” When in truth, we’re not be great, and things definitely could be a lot better.

It's because many of us have accepted the myth that if we’re followers of Christ, children of the King, life should be wonderful, problem-free. We dare not let anyone know our struggles, because if we do, what will they think of us? Strangely enough, those folks from whom we’re trying to shield our life’s challenges and hurts are probably trying to do the same with us. In actuality, we’re all a mess, in one way or another. But don’t admit it to anyone, okay?


A friend, Jimmy Lee, years ago wrote a book called Behind Our Sunday Smiles in which he addressed the facades we use to prevent people from peering inside and seeing our pain. His title captured it, because it’s like we hit a switch before entering the sanctuary or the Sunday school room. We’re convinced we need to look good, acting like we’ve got it all together – even if we’ve forgotten where we put it!


I’ve been guilty of this myself, understanding that when people ask, “How are you?”, they don’t always want an honest answer. They’re busy – we’re all busy – distracted, not wanting to get involved in one another’s lives, or just too weighed down with the burdens of everyday living. “Don’t tell me your troubles; I’ve got enough of my own.”


However, if we’re to be obedient to our calling as followers of Jesus, we have a responsibility to minister to one another. “Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). And James 5:16 admonishes, “Therefore confess your sins one to another and pray for each other so that you may be healed.” We can’t do this very effectively if we’re not truthful with one another.


Even a casual glance affirms the Bible’s emphasis on truth. Speaking to a crowd eager to hear what He had to say, Jesus declared, “…If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32). And the night He would be betrayed, He prayed to Jesus to His Father, “Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth” (John 17:17).


This truth, ultimately, is the Gospel, that He came to become Savior and Lord to those who would receive Him, serving as the atoning sacrifice for our sins so we can be forgiven and reconciled to God. Working this out means we can respond in truth not only to God, but also to one another.


West closes his song with the reminder we can always be honest with God: “There’s no failure, no fall, there’s no sin You don’t already know, so let the truth be told.” We can be honest, totally vulnerable with the Lord because He know all about us. 


And the Church – the body of Christ consisting of His children and followers – should be where He manifests His love, mercy, grace and compassion through each of us. As Ephesians 4:25 instructs, “Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor, for we are all members of one body.” The truth be told, the Church should be the one sure place where the truth is really told. 

Thursday, March 25, 2021

We Can Hear the Bells – and It’s Not Even Christmas

Christmas is still nine months away. I don’t want to cause you to panic. The Christmas decorations shouldn’t be up until May, April at the earliest. But I heard an account about a famous Christmas carol that can’t wait. It carries a poignant message that fits where we are today.

We all know the carol, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, a much-celebrated poet and literary critic. Longfellow’s probably best known for poems such as “Paul Revere’s Ride” and “Song of Hiawatha,” but his poem-turned-carol resonates with many of us. Considering the story behind this heartwarming holiday favorite, which traces back to the Civil War, makes it even more meaningful. 


In 1861, Longfellow’s wife Fannie died after her dress caught on fire. Henry, awakened from a nap by her screams, had attempted to extinguish the flames, first with a rug and then with his body. However, Fannie already had suffered severe burns and passed away the following morning. Henry’s own burns were so serious he was unable to attend her funeral.


While still mourning his wife’s death, Longfellow experienced more family heartache in March 1863. His 18-year-old son Charles Appleton Wadsworth (known as Charley), the oldest of the six children, left their Cambridge, Mass. home to enlist in the Union army to fight in the Civil War. Charley soon merited a commission as a second lieutenant, but before he could see combat contracted “camp fever,” one of several forms of serious illnesses, and returned home for several months to recover.


The young man overcame the disease and rejoined his unit in August 1863. His father was dining alone in December when he received word that Charley had been severely wounded in the Mine Run campaign in Virginia. Longfellow and another son, Ernest, went to Washington, D.C. to be by Charley’s side when he arrived from the battlefield for treatment. The initial grim diagnosis that “paralysis might ensue” was changed to a more favorable report that Charley would recover, but would be “long in healing.”


Back in Cambridge on Dec. 25, 1863, Longfellow, then a 57-year-old widowed father of six, began to write a poem to capture his depth of feelings, not only for his loss and the pain of seeing his suffering son, but also to capture his despair over the turmoil of a nation divided against itself in a bloody civil war. 


As he was reflecting on all of this, Longfellow heard church bells ringing and the singing of “peace on earth.” Here are the original words from his poem, which was later set to music:

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play, 
and wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom 
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South, 
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
"There is no peace on earth," I said; 
"For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; 
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men."


Can you visualize this emotionally tortured man, grieving for his wife, shattered by the narrow escape of his oldest son from paralysis or even death, and wounded by his beloved United States of America being torn apart by strife and disunity? But then he heard the ringing of the bells, lifting his spirits and renewing his hope. We need not wait for Christmas. We can all cling to the closing words of Longfellow’s poem, “God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; the Wrong shall fail, the Right prevail, with peace on earth, good will to men.” 


In Luke 2:14, we’re told one of the reasons Jesus Christ came was to bring, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men!” Another translation says, “on earth peace among those with whom He is pleased!” With discord and conflict so pervasive, we could use a huge dose of the peace that can come only a life-changing, transforming relationship with the Lord, the “peace of God that transcends all understanding” (Philippians 4:7). 


Jesus assured His followers, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:27). Years ago a popular song told of “looking for love in all the wrong places.” Apparently, as Longfellow observed in his now-famous poem, many of us are looking for peace in all the wrong places, too.


By trusting in Christ, even in the most dire, seemingly hopeless moments, there is always eternal hope. As Titus 2:13 expresses it, looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus.” 

Monday, March 22, 2021

Maybe What It Takes to Be Great Isn't What We Think It Is

When you hear the words “great” or “greatness,” what comes to mind? Perhaps an individual comes to mind who deserves that label. In the business world we’ve had many great industrialists, great innovators, and great performers in their areas of specialty. If you’re a sports fan, you might immediately envision an outstanding athlete present or past, or even a team you believe ranks among the all-time greats.

There are great orators, great teachers, great preachers, great surgeons and great statemen/women). Great musicians, artists, singers, dancers, actors and comedians. Of course, greatness – like beauty – is largely in the eyes of the beholder. One person’s “great” is someone else’s so-so.

 What about you – would you like to be considered great? Some of us might aspire to one day become a household name in our favorite area of interest or expertise; others might settle for being a great mom or dad, or a great spouse. I’ve even heard parents say about a child, “she’s a great kid!”


But what is this “great” stuff really all about? Because greatness has its fickle side – someone who’s regarded as great one day and widely praised, can suddenly “fall from grace” and become a disgrace. We’ve all seen examples of that. Could it be that greatness isn’t actually what we typically think it is?


Jesus addressed this in a memorable scene when He was alone with His disciples. At that point, they were still clueless as to who He really was. Some thought Jesus planned to become the king of Israel, usurping the ruling Romans, and they wanted to get in on the action. Specifically, James and John, the sons of Zebedee – whom Jesus had nicknamed the “sons of thunder” – indeed created a great stir when they approached Him with a request.


“Let one of us sit at your right hand and the other at your left in your glory,” they asked. Not sure whether Jesus did a double-take, but He responded,“You don’t know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?” (Mark 10:37-38). He was alluding to the mock trial and the crucifixion that He knew awaited Him.


“We can,” the two brothers replied, delusions of grandeur obscuring Jesus’ real meaning. When the other disciples heard about the audacious request, they became indignant. “Why them and not us?” they must have been thinking. So Jesus decided it was time to give them a dose of perspective. After commenting on Gentile leaders who loved to flaunt their positions and authority, He said:

“Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:43-45).


Say what? Be a slave to others? Serve? The disciples weren’t expecting to hear those words. They were expecting social standing, positions of honor. But Jesus wasn’t speaking metaphorically – He was being quite literal.


In fact, in another setting, Jesus did the unthinkable – washing His disciples’ feet, a task reserved for the most lowly of menial servants. Dusty conditions on the roadways and paths made for dirty feet, but to wash one another’s feet was a job beneath them, both literally and figuratively. And yet, there He was, with water, basin and towel, washing and then drying the feet of His followers.


After some discussion, Jesus explained, “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them” (John 13:13-17).


What does that have to do with us? We have paved streets and cement sidewalks; we take baths and showers, but don’t need someone else to wash our feet. True, but there are myriad other acts of service we can perform for one another – and for people we don’t even know. These often require selflessness and humility, which was the point Jesus was making. He was indeed calling His followers – those of 2,000 years ago and each of us today – to greatness, but not from the world’s perspective. 


Those disciples served as Jesus’ first missionaries, preaching the Gospel to both Jews and Gentiles, both in their homeland and lands they had never seen. But they also experienced persecution, and for most of them, martyrdom. But they never denied their Lord, because they had witnessed His example and were determined to “follow in His steps” (1 Peter 2:21).


In God’s view, all greatness requires is humility and a willingness to set aside personal desires and ambitions. As Jesus said, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself, take up his cross daily and follow Me” (Luke 9:23). Now, do you want to be great?

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Who Do You Trust? That’s a Good Question!

I’m probably going to date myself again with this reference, but do you remember the old game show, “Who Do You Trust?” It was hosted by Johnny Carson before he became a late-night talk show icon. (Some readers are already saying, “Never heard of the show – and who’s Johnny Carson?”)


It's not the show I want to bring to your attention, but its name. Because I think that is an excellent question for each of us to consider, especially these days. One candidate is the government, but I suspect many of us have grown skeptical for many reasons I won’t bother to enumerate. It’s gotten to a point that on a scale of trustworthiness, pop-up used car lots generate more confidence than politicians.


The mainstream media has been receiving a lot of criticism – in my opinion, deservedly so. Used to be that we had journalists with names like Cronkite, Huntley and Brinkley who merited our trust, but their “tribe” seems to have disappeared.


For a year now, medical “experts” have been advising us on the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic, but they’ve changed their stories so many times, it’s hard to tell up from down or left from right anymore. Like the weather report, if you don’t like what you’re hearing, just wait a minute or two.


So the question remains, who do you trust? Do we trust the vaccines, or a particular pharmaceutical company, feeling assured that they will be able to beat the virus into submission and restore sanity and normalcy to our daily lives? We get assurances, but do we get guarantees?


Recently I was reading from an old, trusted source. It’s the Bible, and one passage in particular provided me with a clear reminder of where our trust should lie, especially when all other options prove to be unreliable, misleading, even outright deceptive. The passage I’m referring to is Psalm 91. It starts off:

“He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.

I will say of the Lord, ‘He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.’

Surely he will save you from the fowler’s snare and from the deadly pestilence.

He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge;

His faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.

You will not fear the terror of night, nor the arrow that flies by day, 

Nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness, nor the plague that destroys at midday….”


This psalm goes on for 10 more verses, but the point is clear: Our trust should be in God alone. People, even those with the best of intentions, are fallible and often undependable. Only in the Lord do we have the assurance that He has our best interests, no matter what circumstances we face, and is attentive to our cries for help.


Reading on in the psalm, it gives us this promise: “ ‘Because he loves me,’ says the Lord, ‘I will rescue him; I will protect him, for he acknowledges my name. He will call upon me and I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble, I will deliver him and honor him…’” (Psalm 91:14-16).


Government leaders make promises but often fail to keep them. Medical authorities make diagnoses, and prescribe treatments and responses, but they’re not always correct in their assessments. Today’s media deliver the “news” packed in heavy linings of bias and imbalanced reporting. But in the Lord of the Old Testament and the New Testament, the unfailing, never changing, all-knowing and ever-present God, in Him we can truly trust. I hope you’ve already learned that. 

Monday, March 15, 2021

Will Today Be the Best Day of the Year?

What kind of person are you? Are you one of the cheery, “Good morning, Lord!” type of people, eager and excited about the opportunities and challenges of the new day? Or are you more like the grumpy, “Good Lord…morning!” types, someone who begins each day with trepidation, fearful of what the next hours might present? This is an important consideration, because how we approach each day can significantly affect how it unfolds.

Essayist, poet and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Write on your heart that every day is the best day of the year.” This view makes a lot of sense. We certainly don’t have yesterday; it’s already passed, quickly moving into the history book of our life. And tomorrow hasn’t arrived yet, so it’s not of much value to us as the moment. It might offer promise, but the quality of our tomorrows can be shaped in large measure by what we do with our todays.


Following my open-heart surgery in 2006, I adopted a similar perspective: “Every day is a gift.” Leading up to this major operation, my surgeon had assured that my prognosis was very good. However, he did admit there was a very slight possibility of complications. In surgeries of that type, sometimes the unforeseen does occur. So when I awakened after the nearly six-hour surgery and emerged from my anesthetic-induced mental fog, I rejoiced in knowing the procedure had gone as expected.


It's humbling to realize that the life we take so much for granted can hang from a proverbial thread, so to regard every new day as a gift from the Lord is appropriate. As Psalm 90:12 advises, “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” 


Too often we spend our time obsessed about the future: Graduating from college; getting that promotion (or pay raise); the long-awaited vacation; the moment we emerge from the current crisis; moving onto the next stage of life that we’re certain will be easier and less stressful (even though it won’t).


Repeatedly in the Scriptures we’re warned not to focus so much on what’s yet to come that we miss out on what’s already here. Psalm 118:24 declares, “This is the day that the Lord has made; we will rejoice and be glad in it.” To not appreciate today, the moments we have at hand, is like receiving a gift but casting it aside, unopened, trying to discover what we haven’t been given yet.


There’s always the possibility that what we’ve so eagerly anticipated won’t meet our expectations, so we might as well enjoy the day we have right now. “Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring forth,” Proverbs 27:1 admonishes us. 


Jesus Himself cautioned against becoming too future-focused, since we might need all the strength and resources we can muster to cope with the demands of the present. “Don’t worry about tomorrow – each day has enough trouble of its own” (Matthew 6:34). Worry, fretting about the future and unknowns that lie beyond our sight can be debilitating. 

And we’re displaying a lack of trust in the Lord’s promise to “give us this day our daily bread” (Matthew 6:11). It’s much better to recognize today for what it is – a gift – and value it accordingly. It might indeed be the best day of the year, as Emerson suggested. Then, when “tomorrow” transforms into the next “today,” we can receive it thankfully, too.

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Like TV Shows, Now All of Us Can Get Cancelled

This is the time of year when we learn about TV shows being cancelled. With so many options available to us these days, some of the programs getting the axe we’ve never even heard of. Sometimes when a show’s being terminated, we think, “How can they do that? I really like that one!” Well it seems we too can be cancelled!


They call it “cancel culture” – people determining what’s acceptable and what’s offensive. If we say or do something that’s deemed offensive, we run the risk of being cancelled. Take some recent, high-profile examples: The Muppets, for supposed stereotyping by their puppet “people.” And Dr. Seuss, for his rhyming characters. In fact,  I’ve heard the classic “Green Eggs and Ham” could be cancelled as being offensive to eggs of color. 

And then there’s the kid favorite, Mr. Potato Head. Another victim of the gender identity police. As someone has said, when we start fretting over the gender of a plastic potato, our society is in grave danger. We’re going from the ridiculous to the absurd, it seems, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. (I hope lettuce doesn’t get cancelled!)


Actress Gina Carano, who starred of the hit Disney+ show, “The Mandalorian,” was recently fired and dropped by her talent agency for daring to criticize the “woke” Hollywood culture. But she’s in good company. None other than George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and other icons from history have also incurred cancel culture’s wrath. 


It doesn’t matter whether you’re dead or alive, if your wrong was done yesterday or decades ago, or even if it was unintended, said or written out of impulse or ignorance and not from malice. If the “authorities” deem it to be so, you’re cancelled.


Which made me start wondering what God might think about all this. How does He feel about all this cancelling? Thankfully, we can turn to the Scriptures and find some solid answers. For starters, we find the admonition Jesus Christ gave during His ‘sermon on the mount.’ He cautioned, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged” (Matthew 7:1). This is a verse often used by non-believers as well as those who follow Jesus. 


In the next verse, however, Jesus elaborates: “For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” He’s not only teaching we’re not to pass judgment on others, but we’re also to recognize that when we judge – or even “cancel” others – we run the risk of being judged, or cancelled, ourselves.


How do we know this? Because in the gospel of John, we read about the Lord being confronted by religious leaders. They demanded that He give His view of a woman caught in the act of adultery. The law at that time was for the offender to be stoned to death. (They took cancelling very literally.) In response, after bending down to write something on the ground with His finger – no one knows for certain what that was – Jesus said to them, “If any of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.”


As His words sunk in, one by one the leaders put down their stones and walked away. Reluctantly, in their self-righteous anger, they had to admit they each were every bit the sinner, in their own ways, as was the woman accused. Not that Jesus exonerated the woman. After everyone else had left, He asked, “‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ ‘No one, sir,’ she said. ‘Then neither do I condemn you,’ Jesus declared. ‘God now and leave your life of sin’” (John 8:3-11).


Fast-forwarding to today, each of us who is so eager to cancel someone else – for whatever reason – stands just as guilty before God. As it says in Psalm 53:2-3, “God looks down from heaven to the children of man to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They have all fallen away, together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one.” 


For emphasis, we find similar wording in Romans 3:10-12, “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless, there is no one who does good, not even one.”


Based on those passages, we could easily conclude that if anyone’s to do any cancelling, it should be the Lord. Compared to a holy, all-righteous God, not one of us comes close to measuring up. But the Gospel is literally “good news,” and the best news of all is God is not concerned about cancelling. Romans 5:8 assures, “but God demonstrates His own love for us in this, while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”


Long before any of us had an opportunity to even think about committing cancellable behavior, He had already provided the means for forgiveness, redemption and reconciliation. God has even made provision for regeneration, a fresh start: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (2 Corinthians 5:17).


If we’re honest enough, every one of us can find something – probably lots of things – that we regret and would undo if we could. It’s reassuring to know that even if the cancel culture cops were to come after us, because of what Christ has already done on our behalf, we need not fear that from God. “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23). Your favorite TV show might get the axe, but in Christ we never will.

Monday, March 8, 2021

What Should We Do During Times of Doubt?

Raise your hand if you have found the last 12 months or so to be difficult, confusing, even painful. The rest of you, raise your hands for not being truthful. Because in one way or more, 2020 and so far in 2021 (aka 2020, version 2.0), have perplexed us, confounded us, and maybe even unsettled our faith.


With chaos manifesting itself in so many forms – pandemic fears and mandates, extreme weather, political madness, the abrupt and drastic departure from “normal” – one could hardly be faulted for wrestling with periods of doubt. For non-believers, the go-to question has been, “How could a loving God allow this?” Even for believers, we’ve probably all had times when we wondered, “Lord, where are You?”


However, during less stressful, more predictable moments, doubts can emerge as well, from just about anywhere. A few days ago, a friend admitted her faith had been shaken a bit while reading a challenging section of the Old Testament, one of those portions of Scripture that make us think, “Wait! What?” What she read didn’t seem to mesh with the God of love, grace and mercy, manifested in the person of Jesus Christ, the New Testament shows to us.


Even though we’d like to deny them, doubts are actually an integral reality of the walk of faith. We see this throughout the Bible. The Israelites were a classic example. Every time circumstances got a bit difficult, they were ready to throw in the towel and trudge back to Egypt. “Hey, Moses! Yeah, we were slaves, but at least we had leeks and onions and a little bread!”


Reading the accounts today, we wonder, “Come on, Israel, after all God had done for you – being freed from Egypt, walking through the parted Red Sea, being given manna, then quail to fill your bellies – how can you doubt Him?” But they did. Repeatedly. It was an attitude of, “Yahweh, what have You done for us lately?” No wonder Moses smashed the first set of the 10 commandments in anger and frustration.


We see this over and over in the New Testament as well. By the time the man approached Jesus with the son possessed by a demon, the Lord had performed many miracles of healing and restoration. Explaining his son’s plight, the man said to Jesus, “But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.” To which Jesus replied, “’If you can?’… Everything is possible for him who believes” (Mark 9:22-23).


The list of biblical doubters could go on and on, but we can’t omit Mr. Doubter himself, doubting Thomas, the skeptical disciple. Ole Tom hadn’t been there when Jesus appeared to the other disciples following His resurrection, so when he heard the others declare, “We have seen the Lord!”, his response was in the “yeah, right” category. “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it” (John 20:25). He was probably president of the Galilean Skeptics Society.


Even when Jesus appeared a second time, with Thomas in attendance, the disciple was hesitant. Jesus addressed his doubts. “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” Finally, Thomas set aside his incredulity and responded, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:27-28).


We’re tempted to dismiss dubious Thomas, but aren’t we like that? There’s no need to rehash the trials and travails of the past year, but we’ve probably all wondered why God has seemed silent, even absent, when a loved one has died or suffered greatly from the virus. Or when financial woes have set in, or when an unexpected, unrelated crisis only added to our dismay.


I heard recently that studies have shown more than 70 percent of atheists lost their faith after going through difficult circumstances. That’s the case for people like Charles Darwin, Stephen Hawking and many others. But just because God doesn’t respond the way we want Him to, when we want Him to, doesn’t mean He’s not there – or that He doesn’t care.


So what are we to do as such times when nagging doubts don’t want to disperse? There are no easy answers, but for one thing, don’t deny the doubts. Going back to the story of the man with the demon-possessed son, when Jesus assurance him that everything is possible for those who believe, the father replied, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). God isn’t threatened or befuddled by our doubts or questions.


We also need to make sure we’re listening to folks who will affirm our faith, not undermine it. As Hebrews 10:24-25 reminds us, “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together…let us encourage one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” Faith isn’t intended or designed to be embraced and lived out in isolation.


God knows our minds and our thoughts, so we can be honest in approaching Him. “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7).


And lastly, press through our doubts, reminding ourselves of what the Lord has already done in our lives and trusting He will continue to hear us and meet our needs. “But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does” (James 1:6-8). God is always at work, even when we can’t see or understand what He’s doing.

Thursday, March 4, 2021

We Dare Not Underestimate Evil’s Extent and Power

When you hear the word “evil,” what immediately comes to your mind? Images of someone in a red suit with horns and a pitchfork? The promo for a newly released film, or perhaps a horror novel, promising a tale of “unspeakable evil”? A recent news report about some heinous crime? 

Back in 1966, author Truman Capote became a literary sensation with his self-described “non-fiction novel,” In Cold Blood, about the 1959 murders of four members of a Kansas family. The fact his work centered around actual, horrific events, not the result of a vivid imagination, made it even more disturbing – and riveting.


My friend Sondra Umberger has recently published a trilogy of novels, Unraveled–Rewoven ( to In Cold Blood, they’re based on true events. Since she’s a Christian counselor, not a professional writer, it would be unfair to compare Umberger’s writing with Capote’s book. However, the story she unfolds is as compelling, alarming – and frightening.


Her novels revolve around four characters: Catherine, a young woman plagued by recurring nightmares she can’t explain; Marion, a Christian counselor who helps Catherine dig deeply into repressed memories to uncover the root of the nightmares – horrific secrets of her “lost years”; Catie, Catherine’s nickname from childhood, when she became the victim of evil beyond imagining; and Hunter, the dashing church leader who becomes Catherine’s husband, bringing a terrible secret of his own into the relationship. 


Topics explored in Unraveled–Rewoven are not the stuff of casual dinner conversations. But they’re real issues, far more pervasive in our society, and the world, than most of us could ever fathom: child abuse, mental cruelty, satanic ritual abuse, pornography addiction, human trafficking.


If this three-book saga were the product of the dark imaginings of horror meisters like Stephen King, Anne Rice, H.P. Lovecraft or Edgar Allan Poe, it would be troubling enough. But this fictionalized account, fashioned from true, traumatic events experienced by real people, shatters one’s complacency, along with the notion that our world is inhabited by people who are all “basically good.”


Writing in an unusual “braided” style, Umberger has interwoven the stories of the four main characters in a manner that’s at first unexpected, then captivating. She deftly shifts from one to another, weaving them tightly and inseparably together like strands of someone’s braided hair. 


Slowly, with the help of Marion and others, Catherine begins to recover erased memories of her childhood years between the ages of 6 and 9, forging a path toward recovery and healing. She also must deal with discovering Hunter is addicted to pornography, a vice he initially denies, but eventually acknowledges as he initiates a process for finding freedom and release from its evil grip.


It might be inaccurate to describe the trilogy’s climax as a “happy ending,” but it does underscore the redemptive and healing powers of Jesus Christ, how pain from the past and besetting sins of the present need not be permanent. And how God can still use evil deeds in accomplishing His ultimate purposes.


As the reader emerges from this sinister story line, the question arises: If the realm of the demonic can have such impact on the lives of just the handful of people described, what’s the extent of evil that infests every area of life? As we painfully observe the chaos around us, what sinister forces are working “behind the curtain”?


In the Old Testament book of Job, the afflicted main character bemoans, “Yet when I hoped for good, evil came; when I looked for light, then came darkness” (Job 30:26). And in 1 Peter 5:8, the apostle warns, “Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” Evil can manifest itself at any moment, in many ways.


Jesus Christ confronted and challenged evil in myriad forms during His earthly ministry – being tempted directly by Satan in the wilderness (Matthew 4); casting out demons on many occasions; and facing evil opposition from disbelieving religious leaders fearful of His influence, which led to His crucifixion. Our culture seeks to dismiss or minimize the actual presence of evil, but the Scriptures speak much of its insidious power.


Archibald G. Brown, a minister and associate of Charles Spurgeon, stated, “The existence of the devil is so clearly taught in the Bible that to doubt it is to doubt the Bible itself.” It’s been observed, “The greatest trick the devil ever played was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”


At the same time, we need a balanced perspective. In his cleverly satirical novel, The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis wrote, “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves (the devils) are equally pleased by both errors….”


We must be vigilantly aware of the presence of evil and oppose it in every way we can, but should focus even more on becoming agents for God’s good. John Newton, a one-time slave trader whose conversion inspired his hymn, “Amazing Grace,” commented, “Many have puzzled themselves about the origin of evil. I am content to observe that there is evil, and that there is a way to escape from it, and with this I begin and end.”


In James 4:7 we find this admonition: “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” Similarly, the psalmist urges us to “Turn away from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it” (Psalm 34:14).


This battle between good and evil has existed since the first days of creation, and it’s one we can never win in our own strength. As Ephesians 6:12 declares, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”


The passage proceeds to describe “the full armor of God” – “the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the gospel of peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit – the word of God” (Ephesians 6:13-18). It’s notable that most of these items are defensive in nature; only the Word of God – the sword of the Spirit – is used in taking the offensive.


One additional piece of armor, prayer, must not be overlooked or underestimated. The esteemed apostle Paul knew this well, writing in the next verse, “Pray also for me, that whenever I open my mouth, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel.” Jesus, after delivering a boy from demon possession, explained to His incredulous disciples,“This kind cannot come out by anything except prayer(Mark 9:29).


At times this spiritual battle seems overwhelming, tempting us to fall into despair. But the Lord’s victory has already been won. In Revelation 20:10 we read, “And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are. And they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.” 

Monday, March 1, 2021

How Are You Coming Along With Your Resolutions?

Well, we’re already two months into the new year. The virus is still with us, but now we have vaccines. We have a new President, but some politicians and factions in our country are still aggressively hating the former President. We’re still wearing masks, social distancing and washing our hands – at least most of us are. So 2021 is still looking suspiciously like 2020.


Which brings us to the question at hand: How are you doing on your New Year’s resolutions? Have you made the changes you intended to make? Are you making progress on losing those pounds you added over the holidays? Have you succeeded in breaking that bothersome habit? How about that hobby you promised yourself you would finally take up – have you done that yet?

 If all or most of your answers to these questions are in the negative, take heart. We’re in good company, millions of fellow humans whose best intentions have yet to reach fruition. Resolutions – and even goals – seemingly are meant to be broken or disregarded. They make us feel good while making them, but lead to frustration when we fail to keep them.


When I said we’re in good company, I can cite none other than the apostle Paul, who admitted struggling with similar challenges. He said, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do” (Romans 7:15). We’ve all been there, right? ‘Why do I do what I don’t want to do, but find myself unable to do the things I want to do?’


Right after this, however, Paul wrote something that at first glance seems like passing the buck, refusing to accept responsibility for his failures: 

“And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing.” 


Then he concludes with the declaration, “Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it” (Romans 7:16-20).


When I read this years ago for the first time (and a few times after that), I thought, “What in the world is Paul talking about?” It reminded me of the excuse often employed by the late comedian Flip Wilson’s character, Geraldine: “The devil made me do it!” Later I came to realize that comparison wasn’t far off. 


The apostle wasn’t writing about shedding a few pounds, or not keeping a personal commitment to start building bird houses. He was referring to insidious, inescapable sin. The Bible speaks about our having a sin nature, one we’re born with and remains with us until we die. However, when we’re “born again,” as Jesus told Nicodemus (John 3:3,7), we receive a new nature. 


For whatever reason, even though we’re made “new creations” in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17), God chooses not to eliminate our sin natures. As a result, throughout our lives we wrestle with internal conflict, sometimes doing things we don’t really want to do and not doing things we sincerely desire to do. But there’s good news.


In another of his letters, Paul wrote, “I can do everything through [Christ] who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13). Speaking to His disciples, Jesus declared the importance of their dependence upon Him if they are to accomplish anything of eternal value: “apart from Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). 


Through the power of the Holy Spirit, we can overcome our old nature – which some translations of the Bible term, “the flesh.” So, unlike the disclaimer of the comic character Geraldine, the devil can’t make us do anything – if we are reborn in Christ. (But the enemy can make some enticing suggestions.)


Whether we’re striving to overcome besetting sins, or simply seeking to follow through on worthwhile resolutions or goals we embraced on Jan. 1, we have the Lord’s strength to persevere them until we’ve fulfilled them. ‘I can do all things – through Christ!’