Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Paul's unknown God

Some of you will remember the story about the Apostle Paul in Athens, having a conversation with people about the "unknown God" they were worshiping.  The story is in Acts 17, and I've always thought it was interesting.  Here Paul sees all of the worship of other gods in the city, and he gets upset.  So he's wandering around talking about Jesus to anyone who will listen.  Eventually, the people become curious enough to bring him to the place where things like this are discussed, and he's invited to speak.  And instead of criticizing their belief system, Paul looks for the truth in it.  He sees that they have an alter to an unknown God.  And Paul names Yahweh as this unknown God and speaks to them about Jesus and his resurrection from the dead.

Why didn't Paul tell them that the other gods weren't alive?  The Jewish belief system was strongly monotheistic, having no room for any God but Yahweh.  Why didn't he tell them that their worship of idols was worthless and that to have salvation they had to give up their own gods and follow his?  Why didn't he try to change their whole culture and belief system first?

Instead, Paul explained the resurrection and introduced the person of Jesus and Yahweh and invited people to follow.  And I think we can learn a lot from this.  I often feel the message that I get from churches or from the Christian community is that a person has to become culturally Christian before they can follow Jesus.  They have to believe everything I do about morality and theology in order to take that step into the kingdom.  But I don't think this is true.  Jesus took people where they were, invited them to follow, and then he gave them teaching so that they could grow into believing who he actually is.  Even the disciples believed that he was a political (rather than spiritual) savior when they first followed Christ.  But what was important was that they followed him--they learned to hear his voice and to obey and follow, and all the rest of it came later.  I would argue that morality and theology are a result of following Jesus not a prerequisite to it.

What do you think?  Is your invitation for others to follow Jesus normally cluttered with expectations about what they believe or how they behave?  What would happen if you just introduced people to Jesus and then let Jesus and his teachings challenge their morality and theology?

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

what my clients have taught me

Sometimes I have really difficult clients.  This probably isn't a surprise, given that I do mostly court-appointed criminal defense.  The most difficult ones are the ones who are ruled entirely by emotion.

I've developed some strategies over the years I've been practicing law.  I've noticed that in order to reason with someone rationally, I have to let them express their emotions.  Usually I have to validate their feelings and frustrations.  Only then, after both of those things, can I begin to advise them on what the courts and rules of law say that we can do and what I think we should do.  It takes a significant amount of  relational investment and patience to work through these emotional barriers to the situation.  Mostly what it takes is a willingness to listen and an empathy about the emotions expressed.

I've noticed the same thing about spiritual things over the years.  Our culture is becoming increasingly more based in the emotions.  In order to help someone to meet Jesus, we've got to help them move through their emotions about God and the church and everything in between.  It takes a significant amount of relational investment and patience to listen as someone expresses their emotions about these things.  It takes an empathy and compassion so that our friends feel listened to and validated.  And it takes sensitivity to the Spirit to know when to take the next step and share from our hearts what God has done in us and what he is inviting them to.

I know that I talk a lot about emotional barriers to faith, and that's because this conversation is not really happening anywhere else.  But there is a time when it's appropriate to share rationally about who God is. There is a time for testimony and for information.  We just need to be really careful not to miss the other stuff as well.  All the information in the world is not going to get my client from point A to point B, at least not until he feels like I care about him and have listened to him.  I have to earn the right to be heard--I have to earn his trust.  And I have to do the same thing in the lives of my friends when I am hoping to share Christ with them.

Can you identify in your own life or someone else's how emotions are primary and rationality is secondary?  Can you reason them out of their feelings?  How do these same emotions affect a person's spirituality and relationship with God?

Monday, November 12, 2012

What would you say?

Imagine if you were a part of the following conversation with someone you know is not following Jesus:

Al:    Yeah, my friend and I went on this church retreat one time.  She’s seriously the nicest person in the whole world.  And they told her she was going to hell because she’s an atheist, can you believe that?

Bryten:    Well, the Bible does say that if you don’t believe in Jesus, you won’t be going to heaven when you die.

Al:    Yeah, but that doesn’t even make sense.  I mean, I know lots of Christians who are mean.  They hurt animals, they hurt people.  They want us to go to war.  They’re rude and horrible.  It doesn’t make sense that they would go to heaven, and people like my best friend and my dad would go to hell.  They honestly are the best people in the whole world.

What do you say? 

Do you say, "Here, let me show you in the Bible - it says that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and the wages of sin is death.  But if you confess that Jesus is Lord and believe in your hearts that God raised him from the dead, you’ll be saved."

Do you say, "Wow, I'm so sorry to hear that was your experience.  What did you do?"

Do you say, "Wow.  I'm so sorry that you had that experience.  That must have been really hard.  You know... I think Jesus might have told a story about something like that.  This really rich guy who did everything right on the outside came up to Jesus and said, "Teacher, what must I do to make sure that I have eternal life."  And Jesus said, "You know the things God commanded--do not murder, do not steal, etc."  And the guy said, "I've done all of these since I was young... is there anything I'm supposed to do?"  And Jesus said, "sell everything you have and follow me."  What do you think about that?

Each of these responses will have a different effect on your friend's thinking and even their experience of your relationship.  The first engages Al's intellect and comes from a authority-down approach.  Basically, here's the Bible's answer to your question.  But if you're coming from this perspective, Al has to share your assumption that Scripture has authority in your life.  If Al doesn't, then you're not going to get anywhere with your argument. And even if Al does share your assumptions, you still haven't answered the questions of Al's heart.

The second response invites further relationship and further information from Al.  But it doesn't really engage his intellect or the emotions.

The third response gives some information through a story that invites further reflection.  It could engage Al's emotions, and it invites him to look deeper than someone's outward actions to the heart, because that's what Jesus was looking at.  It might even open opportunities to talk about how hearts are transformed by Jesus and what that looks and feels like.  It could be followed up with personal examples of how Jesus has changed your heart.

I certainly don't think there's one right way to interact with every person.  But if you look closely at the original conversation, you can see how much emotion is tied up in the discussion.  It's not just the Al's best friend he's concerned about, it's also his father.  And an emotionally based question needs a response that engages a person at the heart level, not just at the intellect.

So what would you say?  Do you have a personal story about God transforming your heart that you could share after the story of the rich young ruler?

Monday, November 5, 2012


"And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people. Pray also for me, that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should."  Ephesians 6:18-20 (NIV).

Just before this exhortation to pray, the apostle Paul explained to the Ephesians that we do not struggle against flesh and blood, but against the powers and principalities of the spiritual world. 

So much of the spiritual life is invisible.  We pray for God to transform people's hearts.  And sometimes we can see the fruit of that, in the transformation of a person's actions, but the primary work is done inside, where we can never go.  We experience spiritual oppression and resistance, but that too often shows up only in our hearts or our emotions or our minds.

I know that I've written to you before about spiritual darkness and times of absolute travail and how deeply I have sensed the spiritual warfare over the past five years, since I started talking about emotional barriers to faith and how to be an ambassador of Jesus in everyday life.  But this week I've been reminded again of the need for prayer.  And not just prayers of personal deliverance, but community prayers that God would break through into the lives of the others in our spiritual community.

These past weeks, since my near car accident, have been times of incredible spiritual oppression for me.  For me, this often looks like an emotional apathy, questions about what I am doing and what I am writing and where it's all going, if anywhere.  It's the inability to see God at work.  It's a complete exhaustion and a desire to withdraw from relationships and activities.

But at the same time, God has provided.  He's provided a community of people who will pray with me and for me.  He's provided good friends who will speak truth to me.  He's provided the encouragement of a random dear friend writing to tell me that she was praying for me this week as she was trying to go to sleep.  He's provided the encouragement of a glimmer of where things might be going and what God is longing to accomplish through my life and ministry.

I don't know how you live life in the kingdom, praying and laboring to see the Kingdom of God come and people re-made into true followers to Christ, without a community of believers who will pray for you and support you.  You have to expect that you will face spiritual resistance.  And you need to be meeting that resistance the spiritual weapon of prayer.  But you can't do it alone.  You need to find others who will walk alongside you.

Who do you have in your life who will pray with you and for you as you seek the Kingdom of God?  Who are you walking beside and praying for as they learn to follow Jesus?  Where can you go to find the spiritual support that you need to survive?