Category Archives: Faith Questions

Priorities Chapter 3: Priorities For Our Families


6529032199_a7910559d7_oTethered to his room by an oxygen hose, Art could do little other than sit and think. The prospect of impending death drove his thoughts back to a time he had desperately tried to forget. Though 20 years had passed, Art could barely contain the sob that surged from deep within.

His son had seemed incapable of taming the impulses that controlled so much of his life. As he had lived, so he had died—quickly and violently—his car wrapped around a bridge abutment on a deserted country road. The police investigation discovered that he had been driving at a high rate of speed while under the influence of alcohol.

As the memories taunted him, Art voiced the question that had burned in the back of his mind these many years. “Would things have been different if I had been there for him?” He saw his toddler clinging to his leg as he walked out the door with his suitcase in hand. He saw the eager sixth grader fighting back tears when Art told him that he would be working late and wouldn’t be able to watch his baseball game. Such scenes had repeated themselves many times.

Art couldn’t recall exactly when his son’s tears had given way to anger and resentment. However, he could remember the increasing alienation throughout his son’s teenage years. He remembered how angry he had been that Terry didn’t seem to appreciate what he was doing for him—the hard work that provided a nice home, food, a stereo, and much more. Even the graduation day “thank-you” seemed forced when Art handed Terry the keys to his own car. “Could it have been different if I had been there more?” He couldn’t help but wonder.

As much as those thoughts caused his heart to ache, it was a more recent incident that convinced Art he had neglected his children .

Just a week earlier, Art had phoned his daughter. Though they had never been really close, Art wanted to express the thoughts that were churning in his heart. But his daughter put him off, explaining that she needed to get back to the party she was hosting. She would call back as soon as possible, she promised.

The call never came.

Now he wondered how often his kids had felt so rebuffed.

Is Art’s case extreme—an exception? No.

Our world offers us an abundance of choices: many affect our families. We sometimes forget that in choosing one thing, we may be turning our backs on another. A job promotion may allow us to provide our family with a higher standard of living, but it may take us away from them. That choice may very well mean we will have less time to spend with our children.

Our children are faced with a multitude of choices also. Partici­pating in certain activities may be good for our children while making it impossible to participate in other equally good activities. Being very active in sports, for example, may take away from study time. But time spent working to get straight A’s may interfere with learning lessons in teamwork and good sportsmanship. And a student who chooses to have a full-time job forgoes time for relaxation or study.

Each day in God’s perfect Eden was 24 hours long. Each day in America still is. We need to fill those days wisely. But a veritable marketplace of choices and opportunities lies before us, and the choices that confront us are not always easy. Each day we walk up and down the aisles, picking and choosing experiences we hope we or our children will enjoy. The problem for many, as they shop for life experiences, is that they wander through the marketplace with no priorities. They grab an inviting bauble from this table, a useful item from that shelf, and some “necessities” from this stack—none of them necessarily bad—but suddenly the basket is full. And then they pass by the table with the highest treasure—a personal invitation to a feast in the heavenly Father’s kingdom. How many families haven’t filled their baskets with dance lessons, baseball or soccer games, school parent meetings, town council meetings, and night classes? They are all inviting and useful activities. But by choosing a maddening schedule of activities and events, families have forfeited quality family time, so much so that no time for spiritual nurture remains.

Several years ago some of us had opportunities to attend workshops on the subject of sharing God’s promises with our children. The opening devotion included this rather thought provoking illustration: Imagine that it is judgment day. Our Lord has separated the sheep from the goats. From your vantage point among the sheep, ready to inherit the kingdom the father has prepared for you, you see your child—on the other side. Maybe you worked hard to fill her life with experiences or his room with gadgets, but at what cost? Certainly that is food for thought.

Art questioned the priorities he had set for himself and his family. He realized too late that it isn’t the experiences they encounter that prepare kids for life, or an understanding of the latest technology that will benefit them most. It isn’t a closet full of brand name clothes that will enable them to face the world with confidence.

What Art finally realized is true. Some of the happiest people on earth have never left the state in which they were born. They may not know how to operate a computer. They don’t fret about what to wear to a party. But they recognize the rich treasure God has given in his promises to be with them, to provide for them, and to give them eternal life in Christ.

God knows what our children need to be prepared for life. That subject has always been important. When the Israelites were poised in the desert, east of the Jordan River, ready to enter the land of promise, God had his people pause. As eager as they were to finally enter the Promised Land, God first took the time to talk to his people about nurturing their children. Speaking about his commandments, God said, “Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds. . . Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates, so that your days and the days of your children may be many in the land that the Lord swore to give your forefathers, as many as the days that the heavens are above the earth” (Deuteron­omy. 11:18-21).

The silence in this part of Scripture about feeding and clothing our children or providing a good general education for them doesn’t mean that those things aren’t important. They are. The psalmist wrote, “Sons are a heritage from the Lord, children a reward from him. . . . Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them” (Psalm 127:3,5). The word heritage implies that children are both a blessing and a responsibility. We treasure our children and show our thanks to God for them by embracing them in love. We express that love by providing for them and nurturing them. In short, we simply take it for granted that we are to provide for and nurture our children physically. But God wanted to make sure parents didn’t take the spiritual training of their children for granted or neglect it. They were to spend time with their children and teach them. Their teaching wasn’t to be confined to a few brief minutes given to some cursory daily devotion; they were to apply God’s Words to their children’s lives throughout the day—in their discussions at suppertime, as they walked together to the fields or to visit their friends, in their conversations after they blew out the candles at night, and when they got up the next morning and readied themselves for the day.

What things would they find to talk about and what lessons were they to teach? Quarrels caused by selfishness would provide many opportunities to talk about kindness and generosity. By reminding their children of God’s abundant provisions, the parents could cultivate an attitude of generosity toward others. Their sacrifices and daily prayers provided chances to talk about the effect of sin in their relationship with God and the blessed promise of a Messiah. Harsh words spoken in anger or bitter acts of revenge would provide opportunities to teach about forgiveness. They could teach their children that God’s forgiveness of their sins empowered them to forgive others. At harvest time they might point to the gifts that come from God; and when drought threatened, they could talk about trust. When physical yearnings began to awaken within young bodies, they could talk about God’s gift of sex. They would teach their children that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit and that God would have us honor him with our bodies. Yes, these routine issues provided ample opportunities to train the children. They still do today.

As we monitor what our children watch on TV, we can teach them to be discerning. As we dry their tears after someone has hurt or betrayed them, we can talk about forgiving others because Christ has forgiven us. As we worship and lead our daily devotions, we can remind them of our dependence upon God, our privilege of knowing him, and the natural desire to worship the one who has given us eternal life. We can model a thankful spirit as we acknowledge God’s grace in providing jobs for us and giving us opportunities to support our families. By joyfully obeying God’s commandments, we can guide our children to learn God’s will—and to thank him for all of his gifts. When a serious illness or financial challenge calls for a change in our lifestyle, we can encourage them with the reminder of the mansions God has prepared for us in heaven. When our values earn ridicule and the label of being narrow minded, we can assure them that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us through Christ Jesus.

We must recognize that our children’s well-being is not based on popularity or wealth. People prepared for life are those who are confident of God’s forgiveness, protection, and care. We must recognize that the greatest gift we can give our children is to lead them to that place where there will be no more weeping, crying, or pain. People are prepared who see their entire life as preparation for the eternal glory of God’s heavenly kingdom.

Art had been too busy to teach his children about kindness, forgiveness in Christ, trust, dependence upon God, and many other spiritual lessons. He had been so busy he had forgotten the lessons himself. That tragedy occurs so often.

Let’s talk about this:

  1. Read Deuteronomy 11:18-20, and reread the discussion on this verse in the chapter. God commanded his people to use every life experience to teach their children of the grace of God. Give some general examples of ways parents can carry out that command.
  2. Think of ways you carry out the command in Deu­ter­onomy chapter 11 within your home.
  3. What obstacles hinder you from carrying out this important parental role?
  4. Take a moment and think about each of your children. What could you do to nurture that child specifically? (You don’t need to share this with the group if you prefer not to.)
  5. Consider the time and money you do/will expend providing an education for your child. How does the amount of effort, energy, and money you put forth reflect your appreciation for the truth expressed in Proverbs 9:10? How do these issues reflect a need for you to rethink your values?

Image by Gordon is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

“The Christian Faith is Too Negative”

GerardofeganA secret disciple from the ranks of Jewish leadership, Nicodemus stepped out of the shadows to ask for the body of Christ. At great personal cost, he and another Pharisee, Joseph of Arimathea, climbed that dreadful hill and approached the lifeless Jesus.

They worked in a rush as they wrapped his body. The sun was setting and the Jewish Passover was about to begin. There were rules about such things, and it was rules that mattered most to their religious sect. With Joseph’s tomb so close by, he permitted Jesus’ body to rest on the place reserved for his own. In a freshly hewn rock, where death had never been, they laid the forgiving flesh. The two Marys sat opposite the entrance and watched.

As you watch with them the ultimate incongruity that is the burial of Jesus Christ, there’s more than meets the eye. They lift one arm, then the other. They fold them across his still chest, tuck in the spices, and mercifully cover his face, so taken over by death it is barely recognizable. While they do these things, know this: the Passover was the highest celebration in the life of a Jewish man, especially in the lives of privileged leaders such as these. When you look at Joseph and Nicodemus from now on, see two old Pharisees who just gave their Passover away. They wouldn’t be taking part . . . not that year . . . not after the way they had handled the dead body of Jesus.

These two who loved their rules must have loved Jesus more.

Do you see it there against the backdrop of Golgotha? There, so close to the battered and breathless body of God, was the release of something new.

(Please read John 19:38-42.)

Some people have a problem with Christianity that can be stated like this: “I’m a positive person. My philosophy is to see the bright and lovely side of life. Christianity is always talking about sinning and repenting, always making rules and judgments, always imposing guilt and fear. ‘People are bad and going to hell’ and ‘the world is evil’ and ‘we’re all dying’ . . . frankly, it turns me off. I don’t need the negativity bringing me down.”

This objection deserves a thoughtful answer. It’s the apostle Paul himself, under divine inspiration, who counsels us that “whatever is noble, whatever is right . . . whatever is lovely . . . think about such things.” By all means think about those things, “and the God of peace will be with you.” However, do you know what adjective actually appears first on his list?

“Whatever is true . . .”

You want to think positive thoughts? Good. But this is first: they must be true. Positive thinking cannot mean pretending—being unwilling to see painful realities. (By the way, we are all dying.) A personal philosophy of squeezing your eyes shut to the things that you do not want to see, if you can manage it, could seem to work for a while.

Spiritually speaking, it will kill you.

When ugly grasshoppers had eaten everything in sight, devastating ancient Israel, the people asked the prophet Joel what they should do. His answer? “Weep!” “Wail!” “Mourn!”

His answer was not, “Look on the bright side.” It was not, “Stay positive.” In fact, no response was called for but that they open their eyes, see what they had become before God, and let the painful truth in.

Think of all the means God has used to open people up to truths they never wanted to see—truths about the world, about life, about themselves. He wrote pain into their child- bearing. He planted thorns in their soil. Waters ravaged the ugly world. Fire fell from the sky. He permitted the evil hiding within people to be expressed in openly evil acts. He let the ground open up at their feet. He sent prophets to shout at them and enemies to carry them away . . . all to show them their own desperate conditions. The news was worse than they could have imagined. They had a problem with sin, which meant they had a problem with God. For this reason they lived in a world for which no one is truly equipped, among horrible dangers and far, far from home.

The Israelites answered their prophet Joel, “Tell us pleas- ant things . . . and stop confronting us with the Holy One of Israel!” Sound familiar?

So, to reach them, there was one thing God had never done before.

From now on, if the idea begins to appeal to you that there is nothing so much wrong with life, with the world, or with you and me that thinking differently can’t solve, think about this: God lying there dead—brutalized, butchered, murdered by this world.

Whatever was really wrong with everything, measure its weight by the fact that this was the only solution: God, in the person of Christ his Son, lying there dead. I am convinced that the only solution to my life, which God can always see just as it is, no matter how nice I make it appear to you, was my Lord Christ lying there dead. Yet out of the most awful thing we could ever confront comes the most beautiful.

It’s something like what the grief counselor means by the word closure. It can be important for family members to see the body of their loved one to help them accept the fact and achieve closure: “Okay then. So it’s really over. So it’s really done.” In this way we come to the public death of the Son of God while hundreds stood staring. All four of the gospels call us to come close and watch. Sit there with the two Marys. Draw near to the funeral of the Lord, because here is closure . . . on the matter of all your sin, your guilt, your grievous and unending hell.

“So it’s really over then. So it’s really done.”
Yes. For he was, for a time, really dead.
 Christianity is never mere positive thinking alone. It’s always thinking that turns positive in the end. It always starts with some profoundly disturbing truths. If you’ll see them, if you can handle, so to speak, what God himself is showing you by his Word—and only then—they will give way to other truths, exhilarating truths that make you alive and set you free. That’s the way it works. Forgiveness makes me come alive precisely because I still see my sin. I celebrate the gifts of faith and love in the people I’m with, for the very reason that I’ve seen what we are like if left to ourselves. Heaven fills me with longing and hope to whatever degree I’ve seen this world as it really is. The truths of Christianity get up and dance to the degree I get it: I’m a sinner who is going to die.

But there stands Jesus.

Everything that it meant for the two Marys to see him alive that one particular Sunday morning came to them entirely because they had first seen him die. So, in Christ, there is an eternal optimism and a joy that doesn’t depend on you closing your eyes to any painful thing. Whatever God wants you to see during this life, which he will gently but relentlessly show you, there will always be forgiveness on the other side. There will always be his Spirit holding you together. There will always be heaven standing open, waiting inevitably, more beautiful than your mind can conceive. When a personal philosophy of positive thinking leaves you cold because you’re dying and you’re scared, think with me of Jesus—so noble, so right, so lovely, and, best of all, so true. He lives! You need no other affirmation than this!

Here is all my resilience, and yours if you do not refuse to believe. It lies in knowing that whatever valleys the river of your life will run through, in the end it will empty out into heavenly glory.

You only think of Jesus, and you are positive.

Consider an analogy from C. S. Lewis. A hundred people went to live in the same building. However, 50 of them were told the place was a hotel, and 50 were told it was a prison. Ironically, those who held the positive view became the bitter ones: “What kind of hotel is this!? It’s drafty and smelly and . . .” You get the idea.

On the other hand, the 50 who seemed to have the pessimistic view were pleasantly surprised. “Hmmmm. Spacious rooms. Fully furnished. The plumbing works. You know, for a prison . . . it’s not bad!”

And so, it is precisely those who naively try to maintain a positive view—as if the world is designed to make them happy, as if people are basically good—who wind up in cynicism and tears. “What’s the matter with this place? What’s wrong with these people? It’s not supposed to be like this!”

A hotel? The followers of Jesus have no such illusions about the world or about themselves. The biblical view is of that most awful ground from which grows beauty, gratitude, and joy. Given the life I should expect in a world moaning with sin and overwhelmed by death—given what I must be prepared for even now—I live among unexpected surprises, unbearably sweet.

My comfortable home and meaningful work—which of these did I deserve?

The love of family and friends—something only God could have given.

This faith, this hope, this inexpressible joy that stirs to life as I sit staring at Christ.

You know, for a prison, it’s not bad!

Prepared to AnswerFrom Prepared To Answer, by Mark A. Paustian © 2004 Northwestern Publishing House. All rights reserved.

Image courtesy of Gerardofegan, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Priorities Chapter 2: For Husbands and Wives

Tela ChheArt Remus couldn’t sleep. He was dying of cancer, and the process seemed to consume every minute of his existence.

The doctor hadn’t said much—he hadn’t needed to. The familiar twinkle was gone from his eyes; there were no more jokes. These things had betrayed the truth: The disease was out of control. Art wouldn’t live long.

As he waited for the pain pills to bring coveted sleep, his thoughts swirled like elusive snowflakes on a windy day.

Wanting to spare his daughter the imposing task of cleaning out after his death, Art had spent hours sorting through the contents of his house. One day he found the diaries his wife had left behind when she died. He leafed through the first one and began to read—until tears began to blur his vision. The pain that ripped his heart was worse than that which coursed through his body. The words were the quiet tears of a miserable, lonely woman.

While he had been climbing and clawing his way to the top of the business world and collecting the trophies of his success, her heart had been bleeding in secret—empty and without fulfillment. While he had traveled across the country and wined and dined his clients—and worked and worked and worked—his wife had raised their children and taken care of their home—alone. While he had basked in the recognition and respect of the community, his wife had yearned for some attention. While he had kept an eye on his investments and had gained riches, his marriage had floundered in bankruptcy—and he hadn’t even seen it. Turning the pages, he shuddered as he realized that her life had ended long before she died. Now he was haunted by the lingering thought that it could have been different. If only he had told her he loved her. If only she had been the first priority of his life.

Art’s mistake is repeated untold thousands of times by both husbands and wives. They use up their lives on trivial pursuits, abandoning the true treasures in their lives—their marriages. They trade this precious pearl for baubles of painted plastic. Then, when nothing is left except memories and a tombstone, or bitter words meant to hurt, or when the family has splintered and the judge’s gavel signals the end of the marriage, they wonder what happened. Far too many catch on only as they walk through the valley of the shadow of death. Some never do catch on.

For many, the journey down that errant path begins innocently enough. It had for Art. His father’s drinking binges had shaped much of Art’s perspective on life. The sporadic binges and consequent job losses had extinguished any hopes the family had for a comfortable life. Art was determined to do better for his family. His family wouldn’t shrink under the pitying gaze of the community or live in the most run-down house in the neighborhood. People wouldn’t snicker at Art Remus the way they had at his father.

And they hadn’t.

Art’s obsession to succeed had driven his life. That goal governed his priorities. Hard work was his trademark. But now he had to wonder whether his addiction to work wasn’t just as destructive as his dad’s addiction to booze. He could no longer deny the truth: His marriage had fallen victim to his skewed priorities.

Marriage is a most precious institution from God. Through this institution God bestows a special companionship, a companionship that delights in the highest level of intimacy. Through this institution God establishes the family and gives the blessing of children. The family, which God provides, forms an umbrella of nurture and love for children and a vehicle to carry God’s Word of salvation from generation to generation.

It is hard to think of an earthly blessing more precious or more important than marriage—or more neglected.

In Ephesians chapter 5, the inspired writer points to the reason why Christian couples view the institution of marriage as a priority. He compares the relationship between a husband and his wife to the glorious relationship between Christ and the church. “Husbands,” Paul writes, “love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (verse 25).

Love your wives. But Scripture isn’t talking about the spiceless love the world exhibits—love that is little more than liking something that pleases us. Instead, God’s formula for love between husbands and wives involves the same kind of love that he has for us—the sort of love that is shown by action and purpose. Christ demonstrated such love when he willingly took God’s anger for our sin upon himself. His love stems from a commitment that exists whether or not there is a response. In fact, he loves us even when we don’t love him. “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). That same kind of active love is what God wants husbands to have for their wives.

A husband reflects that kind of love when he gives his wife the number one position (under God) in his life. He cherishes his wife as a gift from God, and his actions show how much she means to him. He lives for her and would even die for her as Christ willingly died for the church. He is sensitive to her needs and desires and is eager to satisfy them. He recognizes that she needs his companionship, and he loves her so much he is willing to sacrifice other interests in order to spend time with her. He knows that a status symbol car is not what his wife needs. A house in the right neighborhood will not satisfy her deepest yearning. She needs companionship. As her closest companion, the husband strives to give his wife what she needs. And above all, as the spiritual leader in the family, he eagerly shares his eternal hope with her. He takes her to church, prays for her and with her, and studies God’s Word with her—and as they grow in their love for God, they will grow in their love for each other.

A Christian husband is always mindful of the love his Lord has showered upon him. Following Christ’s example, he expresses his love without looking for any response in return. Living for his wife is a priority for him—a priority he will not forget when he considers a job promotion or his hunting and fishing schedule or the offer of tickets to a professional hockey game. Living for her is a priority because his marriage is one of his highest blessings from God.

Marriage is a blessing of equal importance for the wife and, according to the Scriptures, deserves equal consideration from her. Paul wrote, “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything” (Ephesians 5:22-24). A woman is to respect the leadership role God has given her husband and to encourage him in carrying out that role. The relationship of the church to Christ is her model. As members of Christ’s church, we recognize that Christ is our head, and we gladly put the goal of his honor and glory ahead of our own desires. We do this gladly because he is the very source of our lives.

So also, the Christian wife sees the role of supporting her husband as the highest priority, even higher than her own happiness and joy. She gladly supports her husband because she recognizes the blessings God has given them through marriage. She views her role as a special way to thank God for counting her as his child—a child who possesses the treasures of God’s eternal kingdom. As a fellow heir of God’s glory, she is careful not to be a snare to her husband by coaxing him to follow the path of materialism. Instead, she helps him recognize that the rock-solid promises of God are more important than the short-lived material trappings that mark their lives together. She encourages him with the reminder from the psalmist who said that the man is blessed who does not walk in the counsel of the ungodly or stand in the way of the sinner or sit in the seat of the mocker, but delights instead in the law of the Lord. In times of challenge and adversity, she reminds her husband of the faithful love their Lord has not only promised but has shown them many times. She lovingly encourages him to remember their responsibility to model God’s love for their children. She encourages his attempts, no matter how halting or imperfect, to be the spiritual leader of the family. Living the respect she has for her husband is the top priority for a wife.

God highlighted the priorities of a husband and wife toward each other in one short sentence. “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21). To those who have imbibed the deadly poison dispensed by our self-centered society, submit is a bad word. To the Christian, however, it is not. Rather, in that word, the Christian sees the loving commitment husband and wife have for each other. They are so committed to each other that they are willing to live for each other. Each puts his or her own interests behind those of the other, their marriage, and Christ.

Yes, submitting to each other also goes against our sinful natures. But we can and will gladly submit to each other when we see that Jesus submitted to the will of his Father in order to bless us—his bride. Out of reverence for Christ, we can commit our lives to each other. With power from the Holy Spirit, we can root out the selfishness that pokes to the surface of our hearts. We can nurture the desire to serve each other. Marriages that grow in such a garden will flourish, blossom, and bear fruit. Marriages that don’t will whither and die at an alarming rate.

In 1981, officials in Ozaukee County, Wisconsin, sponsored a divorce counseling seminar to which they invited interested seniors at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary. The invitation letter suggested that future members of the clergy might be interested in the seminar. A number of seniors were interested enough to attend—but were dismayed by what they heard. Speaker after speaker (divorce lawyers, psychologists, and counselors of various stripes) all had the same message: “If you are not getting out of marriage what you want, then you should get out of your marriage.” They actually said it in just those words. Never in the course of the two-hour presentation did anyone mention trying to strengthen or rebuild a marriage. Never did anyone suggest that marriage requires work or sacrifice. “If it isn’t helping your career, your self-esteem, your whatever, then free yourself from that burden.” That was the clear message. The suggested priorities were evident: your career, your happiness, your goals—you. Though the students were saddened by what they heard, they did learn something that day, namely, the reason the estate of marriage is in its present condition. The world has bought into the philosophy expressed so eloquently that evening. It is no wonder that a large percentage of marriages end in divorce. Marriages of those who hold such a self-loving, self-centered view of marriage have little chance of survival.

God’s Word doesn’t ask us to focus on what we can “get out” of marriage. God tells us, instead, to focus on what we put into it. The question isn’t whether our partner is uphold­ing his or her role, but whether we are fulfilling ours. And what are we to put into our marriages? Paul’s words to the Ephesians are very clear—everything, even life itself, if need be.

For a Christian husband and wife, nurturing their marriage will be a priority, just as nurturing a garden is a priority for a gardener.

The Art Remuses of the world think their marriages will flourish by themselves. They throw their energy into their careers in order to reap the spoils of success, or they get busy and build a house that will take three jobs to finance, leaving little time for each other. Others follow a different path—eager to give the world to their children, they sign up for every activity, then spend their years driving from game to recital to class. In both cases, the spiritual training and family nurturing is put off until tomorrow. One day they stop to look at the marriage garden and are surprised to see that the flowers are gone, the leaves have withered. In essence, it is dead.

Let’s talk about this:

We show our appreciation for the spouses God has given us by demonstrating our love with our actions.

  1. How does a husband show love for (serve) his wife in the following areas?
    • Companionship
    • Providing for well-being
    • Communication
    • Spiritual relationship
    • Sex
  1. How does the wife show respect for (serve) her husband in those same areas?
  • Companionship
  • Providing for well-being
  • Communication
  • Spiritual relationship
  • Sex
  1. List some specific things you will do, out of thanks to Christ and out of love for your spouse, to serve your spouse. (Consider especially the areas listed above in questions 1 and 2.)

Who Can Really Say What Death Means?

Tahmid MunazThe town of Nain rested on the side of a hill. It was surrounded by a wall that had one gate. As Jesus led his crowd of followers up the path toward the city, a funeral procession was leaving town by the same narrow road. Picture two human parades silently slipping past each other. The one with the coffin was led by a widow griev­ing for her only son. If you’ve seen grief, you’ll have no trouble imag­ining her. If you’ve seen death, you can picture her son. Leading the other parade was the Author of life.

When Jesus saw the widow, “his heart went out to her.” It was not her first sorrowing walk down this hill. Not her first funeral. As he watched her pass, there was a release of his Spirit at that broken place, a promise of things to come. “Don’t cry,” he said.

Only it wasn’t the same weak sentence I say when I can’t think of anything else. When this One orders an end to tears, there is something behind the command to stop a heart, or to start one. There’s a look on his face that would be outrageous on any other: “I can fix this.”

But his next words aren’t to the woman. Having stopped the pro­cession with a forbidden touch on the coffin, he spoke to the young man lying dead. We could each stand such a pause in our long walks toward the grave just to hear the next eight words of Jesus.

These words sparkle with infinite possibilities here under the shadow of death. One sentence from Christ makes a joke out of all the worldly “possibility thinkers” who imagine their minds soaring unfettered when they prattle on about seven figure salaries and repeat their mantra: “If you can see it, you can be it.” They still think deep inside the suffocating box when they dream of things they’ll enjoy for a second or two in this life before they “rage, rage against the dying of the light.”119 But you, step outside, and just try to exhaust the possibilities stored within these eight words. Unhinge your mind. What if there is One who can speak this way to a boy lying dead?

“Young man, I say to you, get up!”

Don’t miss the word I. By whose authority does Jesus dismiss death? His own. The young man got up, and Jesus “gave him back to his mother.” And all who saw it spoke better than they knew: “God has come to help his people.”

For his words slipped beneath the long shadow of death and began to peel it back.

(Please read Luke 7:11-16.)

People have numerous reasons for believing in life after death. For many their reason is a feeling. Some sense intu­itively that the scientific law on the indestructibility of matter and energy—the way these can’t ever really be destroyed—applies also to their own consciousness. Some see the principle of life coming out of death written across nature itself—the exploding life of spring that always follows the apparent death of winter. They ponder every seed that falls to the ground and “dies” to release a new kind of life.

Scientific laws and seeds are not proof of anything. How­ever, the intuition itself is proof of something, especially because of the fact that most people admit to it. Our unshakeable sense that life somehow goes on recalls the ancient Scripture: God has “set eternity in the hearts of men.” C. S. Lewis commented that for hunger there is such a thing as food, for thirst there is such a thing as water, for human sexuality there is such a thing as, you know . . . and when we find in ourselves a longing that nothing in this world satisfies, it is another sign that there is more than what we see now. There is something more, something after.

So C. S. Lewis wrote about a dear friend who had died: “Nothing could have changed my idea of death more than Johnson did simply by dying. When the idea of Johnson and the idea of death met in my mind, it was the idea of death that had changed.” The complete annihilation of his friend’s existence was inconceivable. He could not get his mind wrapped around it. More of this intuition of the afterlife can be seen in the strange human fear of both ghosts and corpses. When any living thing is cut in two, we find both pieces appalling. This is death—the unnatural severing of body and spirit. The body decays, but what happens to the soul? People are dying to find out.

Now, I can understand how people respond to the real­ity of death. I realize it’s simply because people are hurting when someone has died that they feel an impulse to deny God because of it. Mourning is the price we pay for the priv­ilege of having loved another human being. We pay dearly, and anger is one of the things we’re likely to experience along the way. If you are mourning someone now, if you feel lost and without hope, I hold out the assurance that you won’t always feel this way. Whether the 60 years you had your husband or the 7 years you had that little boy, you will realize one day that you wouldn’t trade those years for any­thing in the world and that they came from a good God. This whisper of gratitude blinks small but alive at the end of your tunnel of grief.

Most of all, I pray it enters your mind that if you deny God because of death, you haven’t done anything about death at all. All you’ve banished is every possible hope of an answer for death, every possible hope that you might still see your dear ones again. Still, I’ve learned to listen, just listen, when grieving people need to vent the anguish in their hearts. They’re just in pain, that’s all.

But the one response to death that I can’t at all under­stand is the shrug of the shoulders as if, “Oh well, no one can really know what dying is all about, and in the end it doesn’t matter.” Much truer it is to say that the riddle of death is the only question that does matter. If we don’t know what death means, if it remains the nasty undefined variable at the end of our equation, then life itself is with­out solution. Whatever else your life may hold in pleas­ures or sorrows, if you don’t know what death means waiting inevitably in the end, you can’t know what any of it means.

And nothing sounds less true than the world’s hypocriti­cal indifference to death—one minute outraged about a senseless murder, the next saying death is as natural as being born. Does anyone really believe that? The hopeless grief of the atheist at the funeral of a friend is surely the worst kind there is, but those are honest tears. Death is natural? We’re okay with it? Surely it resounds in a far deeper place to watch Jesus cry at the tomb of his friend, as if before a tragedy. A tragedy! And he sees it better than we.

Death is an unwelcome intrusion into a world that wasn’t prepared for it, the enemy coming to take away every single thing you could ever have. More than that, death is a great and terrible disgrace. This is how one man put it, “I’m not so much afraid of my death as ashamed of it.” The hand that types these words will be a skeleton one day. And do you dare to ask why? It’s unavoidable biblical truth that death is a consequence of sin. If you’ve ever seen human death, not all dressed up in a funeral parlor but as it actually is, then you’ve witnessed one thing that matches the ugliness of human guilt and have heard the sharpest possible teaching of God’s law.

So soon after the opening pages of the Bible record the entrance of human sin into the world, we encounter in the ancient Hebrew text the word vayamoth. We read it again and again and again. It tolls like a bell throughout the ancient genealogy, after each man’s name for generation upon gen­eration: “ . . . vayamoth . . . vayamoth . . . vayamoth . . .”

“ . . . and he died . . . and he died . . . and he died . . .”

These are “the wages of sin.” The sad truth is that we are dying already as we live. Walter Wangerin observed that when a bucket is being poured out, the last drop does not empty the bucket; it is simply the last step in a process that went on the entire time. While we live, our lives are already running away. Our bodies are returning to dust. But again, what of our souls?

This is the ultimate fear, the one that holds all people captive for all their lives, that makes them waste their lives running from the inevitable, the one that they must push to the back of the closet, that surfaces in nightmares and debilitating phobias, silly euphemisms, neurotic denials, and contradictory philosophies—the fear of death and whatever it brings.

And yet the ugliest scene in the entire world and in all recorded history is that of nails being driven through the palms of Christ as he faced all our consequences. This was the cost of the way he chose to love us—the dead body of God was planted deep in our human soil. Like a seed . . . a stubborn, unstoppable, inevitable seed.

And the most beautiful scene etched in human history is Jesus Christ alive. Please don’t deny it too quickly. It is all we really have. To paraphrase C. S. Lewis: “Nothing has changed my view of death more than Jesus did simply by dying. When he and death met, it was death that was changed.” And the living Savior, through the Word he has left us, is the one who has a right to speak when your heart wants to know what death means, for your dear one, for you. Let the agnostic stare blankly at his feet, having noth­ing whatsoever to say. It is Christ who fulfilled the mar­velous prophecy Isaiah once made over the very Jerusalem—“on this mountain”—where Christ appeared alive from the dead: “On this mountain he will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; he will swallow up death forever. The Sovereign LORD will wipe away the tears from all faces; he will remove the disgrace of his people from all the earth.”

The resurrection of Jesus Christ justifies the human long­ing for life to go on and more than completely satisfies it. In Jesus the general principle that dead people stay dead now has an asterisk beside it, one outrageous footnote. The “firstfruits” appeared on the human tree, with the prom­ise of more “fruit” to follow. It is Christ who walked through death and emerged alive and smiling on the other side, who pushed open a door closed for centuries and left it open behind him. He alone holds the floor on the matter of our mortality. “Because I live, you also will live.”

After two years of ministering to my old, dying friend— my “Thursdays with Les”—I didn’t cry one day beside his bed in intensive care the tragic words of Dylan Thomas, “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Instead I said: “You go, Les”; “We’ll see you soon enough”; “God has for­given all your sins, Les”; “Fly home to Jesus.”

And when I lay myself down in death, I’ll remember the One who said “Don’t cry” to a woman who grieved for an only son. By the grace of God and not without it, I’ll show my loved ones the meaning of ultimate spiritual freedom.

I’ll put my hope in God and in the words I too will be wait­ing to hear: “Young man, I say to you, get up!

What is sown in sorrow is raised in joy. This is God’s promise. So we plant our loved ones like seed in the soil, with the faith any farmer has.

“I am the resurrection and the life.” That’s what Jesus said. And the Christian, when reduced by death to what it really means to be one, savors these words. They hold us together.

122022_morepreparedtoanswer From More Prepared To Answer, by Mark A. Paustian © 2004 Northwestern Publishing House. All rights reserved.

Image credit by Tahmid Munaz and is licensed under CC0 2.0.

Why Doesn’t He Answer My Prayers?

angel_inaIn the Garden of Gethsemane, from just a stone’s throw away, watch Jesus pray. You see Jesus fallen, his face in the dirt. You hear God crying out to God. You wonder, “What could it be that God, wrapped in flesh, wants so badly that he bleeds?”

First, he wants there to be a way around the cross—and don’t be disturbed. There is nothing about sinless perfection that says he ought to want the experience of crucifixion or ought to want nails through his hands and feet. He will receive within himself the accumulated guilt of this whole human race. He will feel in his soul the Father’s face turning away. The very thought makes him so sad he could die.

“Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me.”

Second, he wants his Father’s will to be done—that the people of the world should be redeemed whatever the cost, that though undeserving we should yet know the breathtaking love of his Father, that we should be let in to that love and see with our eyes the glory Christ had before the creation of the world.

The dreadful truth dawns. The answers to both his prayers can’t be yes. His deep yearnings are incompatible. Either he will die horribly or we will—one or the other is certain. Either his need will be met or ours.

Which, dear Lord? You’re going to have to lead us to the bottom of your desire. Which do you crave more?

“Father . . . not my will, but yours be done.”

That’s what you hear from Jesus, from a stone’s throw away.

(Please read Luke 22:39-44.)

There’s a logic we find invincible in our pain. Since there is a God of absolute power loving me perfectly—he can do anything and says he would do anything for me—there’s a simple way to test it. It’s called prayer.

There’s a hurting little girl who prays to feel better. You say, “I know what I’d do if I were God. How does he resist?” How many people have laid out that seemingly obvious test? They sent up a prayer and riding on that prayer was, “Let’s see if it makes sense to believe in him.” How many people walk away from the door of religion concluding there’s no one on the other side because “He didn’t answer me”?

I must interject that it’s only by faith in Christ that any sinner even has a relationship with God. If you pray to a god whose love is bought by good works, for example, I’m not surprised that there was nobody home. That god doesn’t exist. If you are praying in Jesus’ name, relying on the perfect access Christ has granted you to the very Father in heaven, he has certainly heard every prayer, not to mention every inward groan and barely audible sigh. Knowing Jesus means leaving out any thought of making God willing to listen. By faith in Jesus, God’s heart is already entirely yours. He hears you.

And his answer is often yes. He may grant the very thing you requested at the perfect time or give something you will admit was better by far. Let the seasoned believers around you share their stories of answered prayer. You may be astounded, and you may learn a few things about how to pray. “I will not let you go unless you bless me,”116 cried Jacob in the Old Testament. “Lord, you’ll give up before I do,” was the tenacious spirit of his striving with God. Think of Jesus teaching his disciples “that they should always pray and not give up.”117

Indeed, think of Jesus. Think of the cross. If for a time God doesn’t seem to care, know him better than that.

But what about the times when no answer comes? Consider Jesus. So close to the center of the story of our faith is the unanswered prayer of God’s dearly loved Son. Four things are crystal clear:

The Father loved his Son.
The Son did not want the horrifying agony of the cross. The Son prayed to the Father until sweat like blood appeared on his forehead.
 Still the cross.
 What are we missing? Where does our logic break down when we’re so sure we know what a God of love should do about a heartfelt prayer? Consider three simple truths that might bring an appropriate humility to our questions.

  1. The answer to all our prayers can’t be yes. What one person prays for may not be compatible with another per- son’s prayers. If two men pray for one woman’s heart, at least one will be disappointed. It’s that kind of world.

Also, I may not be aware of the inconsistencies among my own prayers. There are my prayers to be happy, my prayers to be good, and circumstances in which both can- not take place. “Lord, let me be popular” doesn’t jibe with “Help me speak the truth.” It’s that kind of world too.

So may I mention one prayer that lets us put our hands to the rope the Father has been pulling since time began?

May we have ears to hear a billion believers across time praying in perfect harmony that which the Spirit of Christ has moved us to long for as well: “Our Father who art in heaven . . .”

  1. We don’t know what should happen. God knows the future and the past. He knows everything—every fact right now and every result tomorrow of every conceivable contingency today. He is the only one who knows. We don’t know the first thing about what is good or bad for us. Take the example of Jesus’ disciples. What do you imagine they might have prayed for before they fell asleep in Gethsemane? That Jesus would snap out of it? (He had frequently spoken about dying and was obviously distressed.) I can imagine them praying that they could have a pleasant night, a nice Passover in Jerusalem, and then a safe journey back to Galilee. Clearly if they could have undone, through their prayers, the events that began to unfold next, they would have . . . and so they would have prayed to be alone and lost, in pain and in the dark forever. If God had said yes to those prayers, that’s where they would have been. They didn’t know what was good or bad for their own circumstances.

Neither do we. A Christian man stood beside the casket of his little boy and said to me, “God took my son when I was still his hero.” He was thinking of the many things fathers and sons go through that he and his son would never know. It was a remarkable moment, but don’t misunderstand. It didn’t mean his heart wasn’t breaking. It didn’t mean he would ever have chosen to be standing beside that casket on such a sunny day. He was forcing himself to admit that he didn’t know where the path would have led on from there, should things have happened differently. All he knew was that he had a son in heaven. He was betting his soul that it made sense to trust in Christ, that he would see his son again and that they would stand side by side one day shouting, “My God has done all things well!”

I don’t know what will happen in the story God has writ- ten for my life. But I do know him through his Son, Jesus. With eyes fully open, I want him to be God, not me. I want his will to be done.

  1. We’re only dimly aware of what we really want. The soul thirsts for God as a deer pants for water. Though we don’t know it by nature, it is God and only God who could ever match the depth of our thirst for love and meaning. In this way, you can trace any of our desires back to the Source. The prayer behind all our prayers is for the One who fills everything in every way, who loves us even though he knows us. I’ve prayed to be taller, smarter, and better. I’ve prayed for success, for love, for wisdom. What I’ve always really wanted was God.

That’s what makes my sin such a dreadful thing. Sin put the one thing my heart really longed for far beyond my resources and reach. The sin of us all cut us off from Life and Love, and it would have cut us off forever…but we found all we ever really wanted clawing in Gethsemane’s dirt.

There was Jesus saying yes to the prayer behind all our prayers.

He was giving himself away, making a way for us to go home, whatever the cost to himself. If his will includes doing that for me, and it does, then what can I say?

“May his will be done.”

I pray for an easier time of it here… I pray for a life that is worthwhile.

I pray for some circumstance to go the way I want… I plead to my God that I want to know his Son.

I pray to be happy here in this or that way… I pray, “Father, let me see your face in heaven.”

To each of these the Father in heaven must say, “Which is it?” and I remember what I really want. I don’t want to stay standing a stone’s throw away from Jesus.

“Your will be done.”

Prepared to Answer


From Prepared To Answer, by Mark A. Paustian © 2004 Northwestern Publishing House. All rights reserved.

Image courtesy of angel_ina, licensed under CC BY 2.0.


Priorities Chapter 1: The High Cost of Misplaced Priorities

Creative IgnitionWhen Benjamin Franklin was seven years old, a houseguest gave him some coins. Later, when he saw another boy playing with a whistle, Benjamin offered the boy all his coins for it. Young Ben played the whistle all over the house, enjoying it immensely, until he discovered he had given the boy four times as much as the whistle was worth. Instantly, the whistle lost its charm. When he grew older, Franklin generalized a principle from this experience. Whenever he saw a politician neglecting his family or business for popularity, or a miser ignoring friends so he could accumulate wealth, he would say, “He pays too much for his whistle.”

That story mirrors so many lives—all too often it mirrors our own. We work hard, but the goal of our hard work often goes beyond providing an adequate living for our families. We work hard to attain a sense of fulfillment and achievement in our lives; or we work hard so we can steadily advance our careers, so we can take pride in the lifestyle we provide our families, so we can live in houses on the “right side” of town, so we can have freezers full of the finest foods, so we can afford cars that befit the garages in which they park, so we can bask in the aura of respect that the mention of our names evokes, so we can send our kids to the most prestigious colleges, so we can provide our daughters with unforgettable weddings—we don’t just live our lives, we expend them. But a sober look back often reveals the sad truth that the cost was high. We paid too much for our whistles.

The cost is tabulated in skeletons of dead family ­relationships and marriages—and sometimes in souls lost for eternity.

Our families pay a high price for our achievements. The cost is exacted every time a teen mutters about her father, “Like he cares!” And every time a child interprets his parents’ busyness as personal rejection. The cost is exacted every time children reject our heavenly Father—turned off by the model their own fathers have given—and every time children question the love their mothers express—mothers who are so preoccupied that her children wonder if she loves them at all.

Paying too much for our whistles also costs our marriages dearly. One marriage after another, surrounded by the finest trappings, silently rots from the inside out. Then one day it bursts—leaving family, friends, and church spattered with the stinking residue.

Sometimes individuals pay a price almost too unbearable to consider. We ache as we stand beside a casket, truly at a loss for words that could comfort the grieving family. As earnest as the children may be as they reflect on the great example of love their deceased father showed, we find no hope in their words. As far as he may have climbed the ladder of success, we don’t know what to say. Though many view his life as a model worth following, we shudder at the truth. He neglected to nurture his soul. There is little comfort we can offer. We fear he paid the ultimate price.

That very fear launched one of the most piercing questions ever, “What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?” (Matthew 16:26). Many thought that the person who asked that question had his priorities all mixed up. Indeed, he didn’t lead a typical life. “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests,” he said, “but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20). By his own admission, he didn’t have much to show for his life. And yet he was the one person qualified to talk about priorities.

When Jesus said these things, he was speaking to a stranger who, caught up in the emotion of the moment, wanted to follow him. Jesus was asking him to evaluate his priorities. Were they right? Jesus, the only one who ever had his priorities perfectly in order, wanted the man to understand that following him meant more than restored health and baskets full of food. If such things were his priorities, Jesus was suggesting that he might as well go home. There would be treasures and glory in following Jesus, but not necessarily the kind this stranger imagined and not necessarily here on earth.

Following Jesus would mean taking a path that was sometimes dangerous and often disappointing—a path that was shunned by most of the world. No luxury resorts or health spas would grace their journey, only one note­worthy stop at a dismal hill—Calvary. That wasn’t the path most people expected Jesus to take.

But Jesus wasn’t concerned about comfort or luxury or the price of mutton at the local “stock” market. He could see beyond the hunger, sickness, and oppressive Roman government to souls that were dead in sin, plagued by the results of sin, and headed for eternal doom in hell. He had come to earth to save sinners from that doom. That was the goal and purpose of his life. That was his top priority. He knew there was nothing more important that he could do for humankind. There is nothing more important that could be the focus of our lives either, or that would affect the way we nurture our families or the way we live in our marriages. Without his work, our marriages and families would be doomed, and we would be lost.

The works of our hands, the words from our lips, and thoughts of our hearts have destroyed our fellowship with God. We may have committed murder or given a place in our hearts to murderous thoughts. We may have sunk to adultery or glanced wistfully at another’s spouse. We may have robbed others or silently coveted their belongings. In any case, our sin has earned God’s eternal anger and our unending suffering in hell. The respect of the world, titles of honor before our names, fame, or the wealth of the wealthiest could do little to make our lives happy if the prospect of eternal damnation were hanging over our heads. By his sacrifice, Jesus has given meaning to our lives. His redemption has brought us back into fellowship with God. Through his work of redemption, Jesus has put hope back into our lives. His command to share the good news with others has given purpose to our lives. We express this hope, and we carry out this purpose also within the context of the family and marriage into which God has placed us. In Jesus we find the priorities of our lives.

Let’s talk about this:

  1. Take a moment to evaluate your life. What issues receive the focus of your time and energy and thus, good or bad, are the priorities of your life?
  2. Are these priorities wise or foolish? Why?

The following questions will help us focus on the things that are really important for us:

  1. Read Romans 3:23 and 6:23. What is the common condition of all people?
  2. What beautiful hope do all Christians possess as a result of Jesus’ work? (John 3:16 and Romans 8:1.)
  3. List ways that our lives are different from what they would be if we didn’t know that Jesus freed us from the guilt and deadly consequences of our sins. (Refer to Matthew 7:7-11 and John 14:2,3.)
  4. What messages do we hear that lead us to lose sight of the things that are truly important?
  5. The freedom from punishment for sin and the promise of eternal life are more important than many of the things that receive the focus of our attention. What can you do to focus your life on the things that are truly important? What can you do to help your children focus on the things that are really important for them?

Image by Creative Ignition is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Jesus is Just One of Many Great Men

7020308125_e227063cd5_bThe day arrived for filming the crucifixion. The actor, Bruce Marchiano, daring to play the role of Jesus, staggered toward the vacant cross lying on the ground. But he stumbled in exhaustion and landed facedown in the stones a few feet shy of his mark. That wasn’t planned. No longer on script, he looked over to the wood just out of reach and had a curious impulse. He lunged for it. And having achieved his goal, the cross, he tightly squeezed his eye closed and gripped it. Like a prize.

There’s no reason to think that moment actually happened at Christ’s crucifixion. Yet the spirit of it is true. Have you read the account of Jesus’ final trek to Jerusalem? They were on the road as usual, he and his followers, but something was different. He wasn’t holding back for strag­glers. He was out in front. No child was held in his arms. He wasn’t gently painting pictures of the kingdom of God for his fol­lowers. He was scaring them. “They were on their way up to Jerusalem, with Jesus leading the way, and the disciples were astonished, while those who fol­lowed were afraid.” Look a little deeper, and see that the entire life of Christ was just this, a striding for Jerusalem, a fast-walk toward a crucifixion. This is the God of the Scrip­tures running to my rescue. “I set my face like flint.” What is the greatness of Jesus? This is first: He had compassion on me. My need reached him and was felt like a kick in the stomach. So he saved me.

Jesus Predicts his Death a Third Time

32 They were on their way up to Jerusalem, with Jesus leading the way, and the disciples were astonished, while those who followed were afraid. Again he took the Twelve aside and told them what was going to happen to him. 33 “We are going up to Jerusalem,” he said, “and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, 34 who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise.” –Mark 10: 32-34

What are we to make of Jesus Christ? C. S. Lewis pointed out that the real question is, what is he to make of us? A fly deciding what to make of an elephant is not without its comic elements. On a more serious note, Lewis made the observation that “if Jesus is false, he is of no importance. If he’s true, he is of infinite importance. The one thing he can never be is moderately important.” The truth is, it is Christ himself that is asking from the pages of the gospels: “What about you? Who do you say I am?” To reply that he is just one of many great men does not deal intelligently with the uniqueness of Christ jutting up from the whole vast landscape of human history. If you’ll allow one more nod to the Oxford don C. S. Lewis, here is his take on Jesus: “You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him, and kill him as a demon; or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that option open to us. He did not intend to.” What does he mean by that? Once you say Jesus is not everything Christianity makes him out to be, you are obli­gated to provide an alternative explanation to the phenom­enon that he is. It’s not so easy. Once you say he is not Lord, you are compelled to support one of the following premises: he was both a great moral teacher and a disgusting liar for claiming to be God; he was both a great moral teacher and a raving lunatic for thinking he was God; he was a great moral teacher even though we really know almost nothing about him that isn’t legendary . . . or I suppose you can fee­bly say he wasn’t a great moral teacher at all. But how else shall I say this? None of these work.

For starters, Jesus Christ has been, on the strength of his teaching, the central figure in Western civilization for the past 20 centuries. During this time, the arts, education, medicine, science, justice, charity, and civil rights have all grown best out of Christian soil. These facts and the very depth and sanity of Jesus’ words argue that he is the great moral teacher. And here’s the rub: his scandalous claim of Deity is the inextricable, gravitational center of all his good teaching and of his very life. They asked him under oath, “Tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.” He answered in the affirmative, with “Yes, it is as you say.” The greatest teacher made the greatest claim. What will you do with it? Was he lying when he claimed to be God? Is he a great moral teacher who asked obedient millions to lay down their lives for what he knew to be false? It is an unjustifiable con­tradiction that the man of such moral discernment, which has eclipsed that of every other human being, should be the author of such an utterly despicable fraud. And does a reli­gious huckster of that magnitude change the world with the beauty of his character and ethic? Not only that, does a shys­ter take his lie all the way to a tortured death? Consider that those who know God best are the ones most profoundly aware of personal guilt. Yet the wise and gentle Jesus, who lived closer to God than any other person, lived free of any sense of any personal sin whatsoever. Then was he deluded in claiming to be God? Neither megalomaniacs nor psychotics are marked by humility, grace, and brilliance of thought; nor do they achieve the beautiful cohesiveness in life that millions wish to emulate; nor do others bloom and thrive in relationship with such people; nor do these people convince those that actually know them of their godlike qualities, especially not the likes of Saul of Tarsus. Saul was not only a positively brilliant man but also a man who did not want to be convinced. All this explains why it is virtually unheard of for even the most voracious critics of Christianity to actually take on Christ himself. No one dares make the case that he was either a shady or an unstable character.

Perhaps the man himself is the stuff of legend. Do you realize that if we didn’t have the New Testament, we could still learn all the basic biographical information about Jesus from unimpeachable, unbiased first century voices, such as a Jewish historian named Josephus and Roman historians named Pliny and Tacitus to name just a few? In fact, 39 ancient sources corroborate over one hundred facts about Jesus Christ. (As reported separately by Phlegon and Thallus, there is fascinating circumstantial evidence as well, such as the earthquake and an impossibly broad eclipse that coincides with the death of Christ.) Besides, is it silly, superstitious legend that, in the words of historian Philip Schaff, “This Jesus . . . without money or arms conquered more millions than Alexander, Caesar, Muhammad and Napoleon”? It seems absurd to suggest that such a wake in the ocean of world history was left behind by nothing!

Were the words of Christ that lay claim to equality with God and the miracle of Jesus stepping alive out of his own death later legendary revisions? So then the disciples were utterly changed from cowering cynics to loud, smiling mar­tyrs by nothing? Or was “that social earthquake” whereby, in the space of those few short years in question, thousands of Jewish people altered their most fundamental traditions and beliefs caused by nothing? Thousands of Jewish people abandoned their Sabbath Day restrictions, mandatory cir­cumcision, and animal sacrifice, their separation from Gen­tiles, and their fond political hopes for a Messiah. These beliefs and traditions had made their lives meaningful and had identified their people for centuries. However, they now found clear justification for each of these dizzying changes in their own ancient Scriptures.

It won’t weaken my case to admit that there are a few precedents for legendary material attaching to historic fig­ures, for example, the Buddha. But the comparison to Christ is weak. Whereas legend, by the very nature of things, only develops after centuries (and all contemporary witnesses) have passed, the historical attestation of Jesus’ words and deeds by countless credible witnesses dates back to his own generation. (By the way, Buddha lived in the sixth century B.C, and his life was recorded in the first cen­tury A.D.)

When the apostle Paul writes, “What I received I passed on to you as of first importance,” he refers to his meeting with the other apostles shortly after the saving events in Jerusalem. He then records the creedal statements he received there—see them for yourself in 1 Corinthians chap­ter 15. (See also Philippians chapter 2 and 1 Timothy chap­ter 3 to name a couple similar places). Thus we have the testimony of the church’s convictions about Jesus that were fully formed within two to five years of the earth-shattering events themselves. It’s all there. He died for our sins. He was buried. He was raised.

Church historian Jaroslav Pelikan demonstrates that the oldest Christian sermons, the oldest accounts of a Christian martyr, the oldest pagan reports of the church, and the old­est liturgical prayers all refer to Jesus as Lord and God. Scholar Gary Habermas identifies seven secular sources and several early creeds that establish the deity of Christ as “def­initely present in the earliest church.” There is nothing comparable in all recorded history for a legend developing so loudly, so uniformly, so publicly, so free of the flavor of mythical embellishment, and above all, so very, very close to the events themselves. Ready for a bottom line? Unless the disciples of Jesus, though willing to die for him, completely forgot who Jesus actually was or had no hand in the form­ing of the church’s beliefs, the idea that Jesus was a legend makes no sense, not to those who care about history.

Philip Schaff concluded: “A character so original, so complete, so uniformly consistent, so perfect, so human and yet so high above all human greatness, can be neither a fraud nor a fiction. . . . It would take more than a Jesus to invent a Jesus.” That is to say, there’s no one like the Lord Christ. He is unparalleled, unduplicatable, unconcoctable. Who do you say he is? The option left to you, of course, is that our uninventable Jesus is everything he claimed to be, everything true Christians believe. If you’re still not convinced, consider a fascinating, backdoor approach to the question of Christ: the Great Proposition from Josh McDowell. If God chose to become a man, what would he be like? Ever think of that? It’s a very good question. I mean, how could God with skin on let us know it was really him?

Well, he could prophesy his coming centuries in advance and in fingerprint-like detail so that his arrival would be unmistakable. If God became a man, he would be certain to have an utterly unique birth as his entrance into human history. You could expect an outbreak of miracles like sign­posts pointing to him and to what you could expect would be a life lived more beautifully, more perfectly than any other human life. His words would be the greatest ever spoken—with lasting, universal influence—and he, the mightiest factor in world history, would make sure those words would reach to the ends of earth and of time. And not only would Immanuel—“God with us”—satisfy the spiritual hunger in humanity but he would somehow over­come humanity’s most pervasive and feared enemy. He would come to do something about death. Does any of this sound familiar? This is Jesus Christ and only Jesus Christ.

But enough of reasoned, historical arguments. I promise I’ll stop piling them up if you promise to stop fending them off. The reason I bother with them at all is to discredit the unreasoned, unhistorical potshots at Christ—and this is my heart—wishing only that you might stand face-to-face with the thing itself, with God loving you, a sinner, in Christ; that I might leave you with him and his mercy; that you might ponder alone for a moment the legitimate scandal that remains, the cross itself—“that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ.”

If anything is going to persuade you that this is true, it’s the words themselves. It is the Word of God, by the power of his Spirit, that works more than intellectual assent. It crushes your heart on the matter of all your sin. Four or five of his words—“Your sins are forgiven” or “Yes, I am com­ing soon”—can do more for you than any human attempt to justify them. By God’s power alone, the last two words of “Jesus died for me” jump the gap between head and heart. The great Lord Christ issues his mighty commands.

“Repent . . . that times of refreshing may come.”
“Trust in God; trust also in me.”
“Do not be afraid.”

These are the grace imperatives—these words hold within them the power to accomplish in you the very things they command. It’s not unlike the time Jesus told the little dead girl to get up and live. So she did. We were sitting down to eat in a family restaurant. My little redhead, Hannah, flashed the world’s most conta­gious smile to a woman sitting in the next booth. The woman did a most amazing thing. She didn’t smile back. I didn’t know such a thing was even possible.

The sudden, unexpected, undeserved way in which God smiled at this world in Christ—the light of the knowl­edge of the glory of God all in one beaming human face— ought to fill the vast, unthinkable spaces in the universe with shouts of “Glory! Halleluiah!” God has given us his Son. Are you going to go on saying he didn’t? Or will you smile back? This is the issue. Who is Jesus? What do you say?


From More Prepared To Answer, by Mark A. Paustian © 2004 Northwestern Publishing House. All rights reserved.

Image credit: “IT IS FINISHED” by Waiting for the Word is licensed under CC0 2.0.

“There are hypocrites in the church.”

Jesus calls his church a city on a hill that can’t be hidden. But we’re shown in Revelation that an earthquake will strike the city. One tenth of it will collapse. What this seems to mean is that merely being within the walls won’t help certain people on the day the ground shakes.

Jesus told a story in which a fisherman examines his net. Flopping around in it are not only the good fish but some bad ones too. They’re all mixed up together. Soon enough the net is pulled up into the boat. Then the sorting comes. Continue reading