Honesty and Courage

What happens when two professors who have little in common other than that title, decide to write about what our country needs right now?  Attack and acrimony?  Cat fights and dog whistles?  Nope.

Robert George is a white, conservative, capitalist professor at Harvard.  Cornel West is a black, liberal, socialist professor at Princeton.  The Boston Globe recently published what they wrote.  It was a single article.  From very different anvils, they forged a common piece.

They appeal for unity even if on their “deepest, most cherished beliefs,” they do not agree.  Both of these men identify as Christians in the article, and that worldview seems to be what unifies their thoughts.

They write, “We need the honesty and courage to treat decent and honest people with whom we disagree — even on the most consequential questions — as partners in truth-seeking and fellow citizens of our republican order, not as enemies to be destroyed. And we must always respect and protect their human rights and civil liberties.”

Today’s degraded public discourse does not treat people as fellow truth-seekers.  The standard is to shout the worst possible motive at the first hint of disagreement.  “Racist!”  “Communist!” “Radical!”  Ad hominem at its worst.  The Bible says, “Wait until the Lord comes who will both bring to light the things hidden in the darkness and disclose the motives of men’s hearts” (1 Cor. 4:5).  It is so common today to assume and attack motive that you may not have considered it out-of-bounds.  When you disagree, let it be on what someone says or does in the light of day because you can’t see what’s in the darkness.

The professors warn about treating disagreeable people as enemies to be destroyed.  Once, Jesus and his disciples were traversing unfriendly territory.  The locals refused to accommodate them.  James and John felt the burn.  “Do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?”  Jesus said, “The Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them” (Luke 9).  It is a decidedly Christian virtue to seek the best for people, even when they are at their worst.

The professors write, “We need the honesty and courage not to compromise our beliefs or go silent on them out of a desire to be accepted, or out of fear of being ostracized, excluded, or canceled.”  The authorities who crucified Jesus threw Peter in prison for teaching about Him.  During questioning, Peter assured them that he “must obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5).  Refusal to compromise requires honesty and courage.

In fact, those are the theme words for the professors’ article, which is a rare and public search for common ground.  Honesty and courage can bridge the chasm that divides America.  Christians have the means to lead the way.

It’s Possible

Roger Stone is not going to prison for lying to Congress, witness tampering, and obstructing an official proceeding.  By Stone’s testimony, he has received a pardon far beyond what President Trump could give.

Stone has a libertine and provocative past to put it mildly.  He was a strategist who some say embodied political corruption.  He once said, “Those who say I have no soul, those who say I have no principals, are bitter losers.”  He believed it better to be infamous than to remain unknown, and his life reflected that.

Now he says all that is changed.  His critics are skeptical, accusing him of a con game to affect his legal wrangling.  Stone attended Franklin Graham’s 2020 Decision America Tour in Boca Raton, Florida.  Before the event he met with Graham privately.  Graham told him, “It’s not my help you need.  You need God’s help.  Reach out to God to cleanse your sins, to receive Christ as your Savior.”  Stone says he did just that.  “I’ve chosen to walk with the Lord, and that has really made my burdens so much easier.”  To his critics he says, “God knows whether my conversion is honest or not.  I’m perfectly at peace.”

Is it possible that Stone is a forgiven man?  Here’s what we know.  Jesus, speaking of Himself said, “The Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” (Matt 9:6).  He would use that authority for Stone.  “Everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (Acts 10:43).  So, Jesus makes Divine forgiveness possible.  Stone says he has done his part, too.

God specializes in doing what is impossible for mere humans.  He exists outside of the material universe and spoke it into existence out of nothing.  His anthropocentric ordering of our solar system makes life possible. He created humans to be more than material beings with conscience, self-awareness, creativity, and imagination.  And yes, God even made it possible for a person to have a life-renewing encounter with Jesus Christ by faith.  Such an encounter is meaningful not only in eternity, but for now.  God does the impossible and changes lives.

Johnny Russell recorded a popular tune in 1973 that portrays the hope of change by God’s grace.  In the ballad a man neglected his family, cheated on his wife, and gambled his money away.  But this: “They baptized Jesse Taylor in Cedar Creek last Sunday.  Jesus gained a soul and Satan lost a good right arm.  They all cried hallelujah when Jesse’s head went under, ‘cause this time he went under for the Lord.”  Then the evidence: His wife is proud of him, little Jim has a daddy, and “Franklin County’s got a lot more man!”

Jesse Taylor is fictional but this fact remains for both Roger Stone and you:  With God, all things are possible.

 

Good or Bad?

“No one is good except God alone.” – Jesus

Every day we are bombarded with what’s wrong in the world.  I just saw a photo of a post-riot street in an American city showing destroyed buildings, burned out automobile hulks, dangling utility lines, and smoky haze.  Maliciously damaging someone’s property is bad.  In the background of that photo, a firetruck is dousing the smoldering ruins.

A steady stream of such news stories disabuses us of the notion that humans are basically good.  Too much evidence exists to the contrary.  The Christian concept of the “fall of man” reflects what we observe – the world God created and called “good” is infected.  G. K. Chesterton pointed out that the fall is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved, yet people “deny human sin, which they can see in the street.”  We can stipulate that people know what is good and may try to suppress the bad (put the fire out), yet our experience is that something is fundamentally broken about the world and the people in it.

Is it the concept of God that is broken?  Anyone who would restrain my choices and self-expression is bad, including God, so the argument goes.  Yet His unfathomable goodness and grace is why He calls you to deny yourself.  As the Creator loves you, so He beckons you toward what is right, true, and fulfilling.  Sam Allberry said, “If we know that God’s words are good, we can live with constraint.  We can live with sacrifice.  We can say no to very deep desires that feel innate.”  Taste and see that the Lord is good!  His yoke is easy and his burden is light. (Psa. 34:8, Matt. 11:30).

This is the God who created the universe and surrounded you with such natural wonders.  What attribute would move Him to create you with freedom to either love or ignore Him?  Why would He offer a divine solution to your brokenness in real time?  How do you respond to a just God who by grace through faith redeems your soul for eternity? “Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good; for his lovingkindness is everlasting” (Psa. 107:1).

The evidence shows that God is perfectly good and humanity is not.  But God in His mercy made a way for you to share His righteousness.  Jesus, God the Son, walked on this earth to display goodness by teaching and healing, and to convey goodness by taking the fall for you. He got canceled by the mob who came for Him even though He is good.

This cultural moment may insist that you are basically good, but according to God you need to be restored, redeemed, and renewed.  That’s why it’s good news that God is good.

Love Elegy

Former Sen. Zell Miller resisted the term “hillbilly” as derogatory.  But J.D. Vance claims to be one, and writes from that perspective in Hillbilly Elegy.

The short version of Vance’s story is that his grandparents were dirt poor and in love.  They married and moved north to escape dire poverty.  Their grandson (Vance) would graduate from Yale Law School.

Vance moved in with his Mamaw during his high school years when his mother could no longer provide for him.  He thought education was pointless, opportunity was elusive, and life was hopeless.  But Mamaw believed he had a chance to escape the misery.  Once, she bought him a calculator. In her salty way she yelled, “Have you finished your math homework?”  “No Mamaw, not yet.”  “Well you (dang) well better start.  I didn’t spend every penny I had on that little computer for you to (laze) around all day!”

She challenged him because she loved him and he knew it.  When he was at Marine boot camp she wrote daily, sometimes multiple letters.  He writes, “I read every day that Mamaw was proud of me, that she loved me, and that she knew I wouldn’t give up.”  She loved him too much to affirm his fall into the familiar trap of bad choices and underachievement.

That’s too rare these days.  “We are in a culture that says the most loving thing you can do is to affirm someone in their own choices,” says John Stonestreet of the Colson Center.  What if those choices are culturally embraced but personally destructive?  Can true love affirm what is harmful or untrue?

As followers of Christ, we love like He did.  He did not affirm a young man’s reliance on wealth but said, “With God all things are possible” (Luke 18). He did not affirm Zaccheus’ fraud, but was willing to associate with him (Luke 19).  He did not affirm the Samaritan woman’s lifestyle, but offered her “a well of water springing up to eternal life” (John 4).

Today’s chaotic and confusing cultural moment begs for displays of the clarifying love of God.  That doesn’t mean you must change people or fix all that’s wrong in the world.  But you can “be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.  Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you” (Eph. 4:32-5:2).

An “elegy” is a serious reflection on something of importance.  Vance reflected on “what it feels like to nearly give up on yourself and why you might do it.”  You can reflect on this: To imitate God is to love someone by sacrificing something.  That kind of affirmation must elevate truth over choice.  May that love elegy move you to love like Jesus.

Work of God

You can tell much about your view of work by what you think about retirement.  The modern notion of retirement as a permanent vacation creates a bias against the virtue of work.  Consider some examples.

In 2018, an investment services company ran a Super Bowl ad in which a granny DJ-ed a modern dance club, an elderly fireman struggled with a pressurized hose, and an aged UPS worker fumbled packages.  The message was clear: If you have to work in retirement, you’re a failure.  “I plan to work only until I can afford to retire” sounds like all work is bad.  Yet God made us to produce, create, and serve because He does.  That invites work as worship of the Creator.  Dorothy Sayers wrote, “(Work) should be the full expression of the worker’s faculties, the thing in which he find spiritual, mental, and bodily satisfaction, and the medium in which he offers himself to God.”  That’s true whether or not you receive a paycheck.

When Alabama football coach “Bear” Bryant retired after the 1982 season, someone asked what he would do.  “Probably croak in a week,” he said.  He died one month later, and never had the chance to explore life beyond coaching. If you say, “I don’t know what else I’d do,” let me remind you that you are not your career. Tim Keller writes, “Many modern people seek a kind of salvation – self-esteem and self-worth – from career success.”  That’s idolatry. For the Christian, your identity and success are in Christ.  He prepares your work regardless of your career status (Eph. 2:10).

Another fallacy is, “I’m too old to accomplish anything meaningful.”  That is the lament of the retiree who yearns for significance but is trapped by the mindset that life is measured only by previous success.  When you work to serve others, you are doing significant things.  “As each one has received a special gift, employ it in serving one another as good stewards of the manifold grace of God” (1 Pet. 4:10).  The time, experience, and knowledge that earned you a paycheck are the tools of the volunteer, the advisor, the neighbor that engages the community.  Whether paid or not, work “as for the Lord” (Col. 3:23) is meaningful.

Jeff Haanen in An Uncommon Guide to Retirement writes, “Work is the primary avenue for fulfilling Christ’s command to love your neighbor as yourself.  For Christians, work is fundamentally about contribution to others, not compensation; an expression of identity but not the source of identity; serving others, not personal success.”  What drudgery if work is only for a paycheck, and retirement only for leisure!  Contribute what’s missing, restore what’s broken, and promote what’s good, and do the work of God.

Free Indeed

This is starting to look like a cultural revolution to some degree.  Be careful what you ask for, America.

Cultural values are expressed in its monuments to the past.  When time comes for change, what happens to those monuments is a declaration to the present.  Iraqis brought down Saddam Hussein in 2003. Ukrainians toppled Lenin in 2014.  I understand those.  But Columbus, Washington, Lee, Grant?  Even Francis Scott Key and Teddy Roosevelt can no longer stand.  This cleansing of the public square…maybe someone can translate the statement being made, if it’s a coherent statement at all.

It reminds me of something Jesus said.  After he healed a demon-possessed man who was blind and mute, he gave a talk.  He used what happened to that man to illustrate a point.  He explained that when an impure spirit comes out of a person it might well come back and find the house unoccupied.  “Then it goes and takes with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there.  And the final condition of that person is worse than the first” (Matt. 12:43-45).  His point was that just the removal of what is wrong is not enough.  It must be replaced with something right.  In this case, he was challenging his hearers to believe that he is the promised Messiah who offers the only hope of being right with God.

America’s founders led a revolution based on freedom, however imperfectly. But the trajectory they set became opportunity for all to gain freedom, including the right of assembly, protest, and speech.  Do those who seem to want a modern revolution realize that they are railing against the very culture that grants their freedom to speak against its flaws?  Will they open the doors to a final condition far worse than the first?

Os Guinness gives this much thought in his book, A Free People’s Suicide.  He writes, “In pulling down what are seen as the oppressive structures and practices of the old regime, successful revolutions inevitably create a vacuum into which can flow a hundred forces lethal to the ideals for which the revolution was fought.  The French, Russian and Chinese revolutions are cautionary examples of this truth.  Far from ordering freedom, they spiraled down to demonic disorder and tyranny, often far worse than any evil they replaced.”

I hope my fellow citizens consider carefully where we go from here.  Change may well be needed, but make sure change is for the better.  Heed the call of Jesus, “If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36).  Then call for cultural change in a way that uplifts all.  Your life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness are at stake.

Oh, and by the way.  Happy Birthday, America.  Enjoy your freedom.

The Love Motivation

If you have yet to believe God exists or the Christian gospel is true, I want to reveal something to you.  When a Christian says or writes something that challenges you at the point of faith, it is an expression of love. You matter.

George W. Truett (1867-1944) learned early in life that love and truth are graceful companions.  He is a favorite son of Hayesville, North Carolina who became a Christian leader of renown and influence. He spent the first 22 years of his life there, before migrating to Texas and later becoming the pastor of First Baptist Dallas.  He was one of the most famous preachers of his era, introducing many around the world to the Savior.

At the age of 19, Truett professed faith in Jesus Christ during a revival meeting.  At the time, he was a schoolteacher at nearby Crooked Creek in Towns County, Georgia.  The next year, he founded Hiawassee Academy with the support of his McConnell cousins who lived nearby.

Truett loved his students, and that gave him the freedom to speak truth to them.  His biography tells the story of Jim, a crippled lad 16 years old.  Jim appeared at the school one day during chapel.  After the service he stayed behind. Truett asked, “My lad, what do you want?”

“I want to go to school!  I want to be somebody in the world.”  Because of Jim’s poverty, Truett gave him free tuition and books.

Truett later spoke with the boy in his office.  Jim explained that his father died in a mill accident, and his mother was struggling to support Jim and his two sisters.  Truett laid his hand on Jim’s head saying, “Jim, I believe in you thoroughly, and I want you to know that I love you.”

Startled, Jim said with a sob, “I didn’t know anybody loved me but my mother and sisters!”

One Friday evening as Truett led evening prayers for the boys, Jim stood up with his crutches.  Through laughter and tears he said, “Teacher, I have found the Savior!  That time you told me you loved me started me toward Him!”  It was the first soul Truett ever led to the Savior, and it was love and truth that won Jim over.

The message of truth must be motivated by love.  Ravi Zacharias said, “If truth is not undergirded by love, it makes the possessor of that truth obnoxious and the truth repulsive.”  Our example is Jesus.  When he proclaimed truth to people, “He felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and dispirited like sheep without a shepherd” (Matt. 9:36).  His gospel begins just so: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son” (John 3:16).  May that love motivate you to believe and share the truth.

 

Change of Heart

“Change is the only constant in life.” – Heraclitus (500 BC)

In a city near you, people have been using both peaceful and violent means to accelerate change.  The daily news compels you to form an opinion on the methods or the goal of that change.  Some plead for America to honor its original declaration that “all men are created equal.”  Others want balanced scales of justice.  Some want a new president or a new law.  Others want to redistribute wealth or property.  Some want reconciliation while others want reparations.  The reason for so many solutions is that we don’t agree on the problem.

Our most basic problem is a matter of the heart, and what we desire above all else.  Jesus said “Seek first His kingdom and His righteousness” (Matt. 6:33).  When you seek God’s rule over your heart, you’ll find that you also “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:39).  Jesus loved and associated with people not like him, and they were changed.

Tom Tarrants tells the story of a heart change in his biography, Consumed by Hate, Redeemed by Love.  The subtitle is, “How a Violent Klansman Became a Champion of Racial Reconciliation.”  Tarrants honestly believed he was a Christian because of his early church experience in the South.  In high school in the 1960’s he became radicalized, believing his terroristic actions were necessary for God and country.

In 1968, law enforcement shot him several times as he attempted to set a bomb.  At the age of 21, he received a 35-year sentence for his crimes.  He escaped but was recaptured. He attempted suicide but failed.  So he began to read.  History and philosophy began his intellectual liberation.  His spiritual liberation came when he read, “What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?” (Matt. 16:26).

He realized that he needed repentance, forgiveness, faith, and change.  In 1970, kneeling on the concrete cell floor he prayed, “Lord Jesus Christ, I have ruined my life and the lives of others and committed many sins.  Please forgive me, take over my life, and do whatever you want with me.”  He writes, “In that moment I felt as if a thousand pounds had been lifted off my shoulders.  Something deep within me had changed – new life had invaded my heart.  Jesus had heard my prayer and I was now somehow different than I had been.”

True Christianity brings change.  The last fifty years are evidence of Tarrants’ changed life.  He reconciled with people he had hated and hurt.  After prison, he became a minister, reconciling people to God and to one another.

It’s not just that America needs change; Americans do.  Jesus’ call to love your neighbor is a timeless reminder that change begins with the heart.  Are you ready for that change?

Otherness

Chuck Colson wrote, “If we fail to stand for Christ at that place where the world is denying His Lordship, we are missing the mark.” The death of George Floyd and the following violent events are such a denial. Christ is Lord over how we treat one another. You won’t hear that narrative in the “outrage” media.

To stand for Christ is to think, speak, and act as He does. When He walked this earth, Jesus befriended rich and poor, dejected and rejected, Samaritan and Syrophoenician, untouchables and unlovables, the hated and the unnoticed. The Christian gospel begins with love, Jesus said (John 3:16). Hate has no place in the life of a believer, either as an action or a reaction. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Let no man pull you so low as to hate him.”

A rejection of “otherness” is built in to human nature. We use race, culture, and language as sieves of acceptance. Yet God uses that very tendency to show Himself, by contrast, through the lives of his followers. “By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). Life in Christ transcends “otherness” and is a powerful contrast to a disoriented, misguided world.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn put his finger on the real issue. “The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” It’s about me. The good news is that Jesus is in the heart-changing business! William Wilberforce wrote, “Is it not the glory of Christianity to extinguish the malignant passions; to curb the violence, to control the appetites, and to smooth the asperities (abrasiveness) of man; to make us compassionate and kind, and forgiving one to another; to make us good husbands, good fathers, good friends; and to render us active and useful in the discharge of the relative social and civil duties?” True renewal in Christ Jesus is quite evident, especially to the “other.”

I am encouraged by the activities of the One Race movement, an organization based in Atlanta. They emphasize our commonalities, since God “made from one man every nation of mankind” (Acts 17:26). They promote The Atlanta Covenant which includes, “We believe that cultural reconciliation is inherent to the gospel of Jesus Christ and it is only through the gospel that reconciliation between cultures is possible. There is no power other than the power of the cross of Christ that is able to destroy historic cultural divisions and bring unity and peace.” Amen to that.

The Bible describes a heavenly scene. “A great multitude which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (Rev. 7:9). When you set aside “otherness” and stand for Christ, you will see a bit of heaven on earth.

Ravi Zacharias

Ravi Zacharias passed into eternity recently. Since 1971, he crisscrossed the globe carrying the message of Christ to the high class and low castes, to national leaders and religious followers, to prisoners and questioners. He spoke at universities and the United Nations, in public venues and in private meetings. The books he wrote, the lives he touched, the minds he trained still help believers think and thinkers believe.

I had the privilege of meeting him once. I approached him wondering if this highly respected, well-known man had the time. He did. After we exchanged pleasantries, I asked if I could hug him. He laughed and agreed! I also posed a question to him. “What is the greatest challenge facing the church today?” He responded that the church cannot afford to go off-message. We have the unchanging truth that the world needs and if we do not explain it, who will?

That truth is found in the inscription to be placed on his grave stone, “Because I live, you also will live” (John 14:19). Zacharias first heard those words at the age of 17 as he lay in a hospital bed after attempting suicide. Though he wanted to die, he learned from his Creator why he should live! In that moment he committed his life to finding and following truth.

In 1983, Billy Graham invited him to speak at a worldwide gathering of evangelists in Amsterdam. There, Zacharias declared that the message of Christ must be conveyed with respect to the hearer. That idea set the tone for the ministry he founded the next year. One of the hallmarks of RZIM is to host events where challenging questions may be asked. Zacharias believed, “Behind every question is a questioner.” Even though the speakers are academically qualified in philosophy, history, literature, law, and science, their goal is not to win an argument but offer respectful and reasonable responses to the questioner. RZIM now has over 100 speakers and writers from all over the globe conducting a worldwide ministry. Zacharias structured the organization to continue, even in his absence.

Zacharias’ method was to engage the mind, believing you need not check your intellect at the door to be a Christian. Yet he had a way of simplifying truth for the rest of us. He said, “The Christian faith, simply stated, reminds us that our fundamental problem is not moral; rather, our fundamental problem is spiritual. It is not just that we are immoral, but that a moral life alone cannot bridge what separates us from God. Herein lies the cardinal difference between the moralizing religions and Jesus’ offer to us. Jesus does not offer to make bad people good but to make dead people alive.”

Now in the land of the living, Ravi Zacharias (1946 – 2020).