Stop Shaming Other Christians into Voting Against their Conscience (or “Am I Wasting my Vote?”)

baboon-655313_1920-pixabay-headerGiven this year’s choices for president, more people are seriously considering casting a vote for a third or minor party candidate. I think it’s important to address the question of the logic of what it means to “waste” one’s vote.

I think the worst thing about this contentious presidential election year is the degree to which Christians have been divided against each other. One major line of attack is aimed at Christians who say their consciences cannot permit them to vote for a crass, constitutionally-ignorant, opportunistic victim-blaming admitted sexual assailant by other Christians who say that any other choice means the first group is complicit in electing a manipulative, megalomaniacal, lying, corrupt, liberty- and family-hating baby killer. The internecine conflict is sharp, with a vitriol usually reserved for Old-Earth versus Young-Earth Creationist debates.

By the way, if you’re on either side of this debate, I encourage you to pause right now and go read this list of New Testament passages on how Christians are supposed to treat “one another.” Then come back. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Now let’s talk about voting.

There are two major ways of thinking of your vote.

Seeing your vote as expressive reflects the most straightforward and historical purpose of the vote in any democracy or republic; that, when you cast your vote you are expressing a clear preference for one candidate over the others. That is, all things taken into account, you positively favor the candidate’s promises and the candidate him- or herself to hold the office of the president (or whatever office they’re running for).

Seeing your vote as strategic (also sometimes called instrumental) means that your vote is merely a means of accomplishing some other outcome. So when people say they are voting for Trump because they want to prevent Hillary Clinton from nominating pro-choice judges, they are being strategic; they don’t necessarily like Trump, but they are preventing Clinton’s nominations.

Let’s look at the logic of these two approaches.

Sincere Expressive Voting

Expressive voting is the most straightforward and historical purpose of the vote in any democracy or republic—expressing support for a candidate or party that, all things being equal, will lead your community or nation in the way that you actually think is good.

In casting a sincere expressive vote for Trump you are actually endorsing what Trump says, how he says it, and the candidate’s personal character. When another person votes expressively for Clinton, she is positively endorsing Clinton. A vote for Johnson endorses his policies and character, and so on.

This kind of vote is pretty simple to assess for Christians. As I have been teaching for decades: Look at the biblical texts and determine God’s purposes for civil government and society, and the character he expects of the civil authorities, and vote for the candidate who, on balance, best reflects those principles.

(Here is a link to one of my recent talks addressing Christian Citizenship; the section on what scripture says about God’s purposes for government begins around 30:00.)

Now, usually in the US there is at least one major party candidate who is relatively acceptable in these terms, even if not perfect. (You may think one of the major party candidates this year is acceptable in both policy and character terms.) This year, however, it is clear that a lot of Christians support neither Trump nor Clinton and all that they stand for. Still, I have come to the position that your expressive vote for a minor party candidate is not wasted, you just have to understand that you are taking a public stand for what you believe to be the right direction for politics, government and society and you are voting for someone who will not win. That’s okay, because theologically conservative Christians ought to have learned long ago that politicians will compromise on their promises (as two founders of the Moral Majority wrote in their 1999 book Blinded by Might) as even that paragon of conservatism Ronald Reagan did.

I have come to the position that your expressive vote for a minor party candidate is not wasted, you just have to understand that you are taking a public stand for what you believe to be the right direction for politics, government and society and you are voting for someone who will not win.

Strategic Voting

Weak candidates and their supporters want you to view your vote as strategic, and they try to convince their minions of that in order to gain the leaders’ favored outcomes or avoid disfavored outcomes. Democratic leaders, for example, proclaim to their liberal base that anything but a vote for Hillary is essentially a vote for Trump. President Obama said,

“If you don’t vote, that’s a vote for Trump, if you vote for a third-party candidate who’s got no chance to win, that’s a vote for Trump.”

Conservatives say the same thing. In one of the more sophisticated efforts Eric Metaxas argued,

“Not voting—or voting for a third candidate who cannot win—is a rationalization designed more than anything to assuage our consciences…[Those who choose to do so] would be responsible for passively electing someone who champions the abomination of partial-birth abortion, someone who is celebrated by an organization that sells baby parts.”

I find it fascinating that Metaxas acknowledges that our consciences might need assuaging when faced with the prospect of voting for The Donald. That is, our conscience tells us “You cannot vote for this guy!” or “That other person has the best policies!” and Metaxas patronizingly says that we must comfort our conscience when we actually vote on that basis. He thinks you need to somehow justify voting in concert with your conscience—your Spirit-informed internal compass for discerning right and wrong! (Who is doing the actual rationalizing here?!)

The strategic argument is that removing your vote from the Trump tally (note that folks like Metaxas assume it’s there in the first place!) makes it easier for Clinton to win, because she’ll then need fewer votes to win than she would if you voted strategically. The math of this position is pretty simple.

Let’s say in your state 42 voters say they’ll vote Trump, 40 for Clinton, 5 for Johnson, 3 for Stein, and 2 for Castle. If the election is held today, Trump wins. But suppose some of those are only reluctantly voting for Trump, and only because they loathe or fear Hillary; these are called “clothespin” voters. Let’s say there are three Trump “clothespin” voters who ultimately decide to abstain or vote for Darrell Castle; Trump’s votes go to 39 and Clinton wins with 40, assuming Clinton clothespin voters don’t also abstain or vote for Stein.

Just in case you think this is unrealistic, in a recent (10/18/16) Economist/YouGov poll, 43% of people who said they will vote for Trump say they are actually “mostly voting against Hillary Clinton.” That means nearly half of Trump voters are voting strategically. The same poll shows that about 35% of Clinton voters are “mostly voting against Donald Trump.”

The Metaxas argument, however, is that for Christians anything other than a Trump vote is naïve because your conscience will lead you to vote for someone that actually doesn’t have a chance of winning, like Evan McMullin or Darrell Castle. That is, voters must consider the practical effects of their votes. Thinking strategically, a vote for Castle may indeed have the effect of making it easier for Clinton to win, IF AND ONLY IF you would have otherwise voted for Trump.

An important part of this argument is that the US election system essentially constrains the winner to be either the Democrat or the Republican. I don’t deny that, and I have several fascinating political science lectures on this, if you’re interested! Since Trump is the only candidate with a practical chance of beating Clinton, strategic voting advocates say you ought to vote strategically for Trump if you want to avoid Clinton.

But this mindset only considers a vote a strategic tool, not as a positive expression of political preferences. What if you want your vote to be a positive endorsement of a candidate and his or her positions?

The other effects of voting strategically

Most of the arguments about wasted votes among evangelical Christians emphasize avoiding the effect of Clinton’s Supreme Court nominees. But there are other important effects of voting strategically instead of expressively.

The other effects of strategic voting

  1. You have to vote against your conscience.
  2. How the candidate will interpret the vote.
  3. How society and history will judge Christians for their votes.
  4. Voting strategically might avert a Clinton win, but it might not.

First, as Metaxas subtly acknowledges, you have to vote against your conscience in order to do what he recommends. At this point, it’s worth revisiting what scripture says about the purpose of your conscience and the importance of living with a clear conscience. (To get you started here’s the BibleGateway link for the word conscience.)

Second, consider how the candidate will interpret the vote. Imagine a candidate who is so egotistical and un-self-critical that he or she will NOT view any votes they get as clothespin strategic votes, but as expressive votes, positive endorsements of his or her policy agenda, campaign tactics, and personal character.

Let me put it directly: Do you honestly think that Donald Trump will look at clothespin votes for him and humbly engage in self-reflection about why so many people didn’t like him but didn’t like Clinton more, and that’s how he ended up with their votes? Or will he say, “I won! Look at how many people love me!

Third, Christians cannot ignore how society and history will judge Christians for supporting a candidate like Trump. How Christians act, for good or ill, reflects on our King and on other Christians (Matt 5:16; 1 Peter 2:11-16; 1 Peter 3:16-17; Phil 2:15; Titus 2:6-8). Like it or not, we have a responsibility to the Kingdom of God and to the reputation of our King that goes beyond the consequences of the election.

This is already happening. Pundits and political analysts have been happily discussing the enthusiasm that nice conservative Jesus people have for Donald Trump. Here are just a few examples:

  • March 6: “Why Evangelicals Support Trump” (Politico)
  • June 10: “Evangelicals give Trump stamp of approval” (The Hill)
  • June 27: “Not keeping the faith: Donald Trump and the conning of evangelical voters” (Salon)
  • July 21: “How Donald Trump Divided and Conquered Evangelicals” (Rolling Stone)
  • July 21: “Churchgoing Republicans, once skeptical of Trump, now support him” (Pew Research Center Fact Tank)
  • October 7: “Evangelical Leaders Shrug At Donald Trump’s Lewd Comments” (Daily Beast)

Actual support for Trump among evangelicals is not nearly as strong as pundits would have us believe, as I and others have argued and demonstrated (see, for example, here, here, here, and here).

The upshot is that as churchgoing evangelicals vote for and stridently support Trump, our whole tribe will get associated with him and his style.

Finally, voting strategically might avert a Clinton win, but it might not. Imagine a scenario in which you violate your conscience, vote strategically for Trump and Hillary Clinton still wins your state (recall that the presidential election is decided state-by-state because of the Electoral College), and even the presidency.

So yes, voting strategically for Trump might keep Hillary out of the White House, if that’s what you want. But it might not. To get there, however, you might have to violate your conscience, send Donald the message that he’s just great, and link Christianity with this person’s electoral success.

And all of that still does not even touch the question of whether Donald Trump (a lifelong Democrat and not a conservative) can be trusted to keep his word to Evangelicals and other conservatives. But that’s another topic.

Conclusion

If you are a strategic Trump voter and have made it this far, thank you. But you’ve probably been arguing with me every step of the way, and feeling like I’ve been hitting you pretty hard, guilting you for your vote choice. That was not my intention. My intention was to starkly communicate what the other side is going through in their genuine conscience-informed struggle, in the face of a pretty ugly assault by other brothers and sisters in the Lord. And to encourage everyone to vote biblically, which may not be the same thing as voting strategically.

If you really like Trump and all his baggage, then by all means vote for him. But stop guilt-tripping your brothers and sisters in Christ. Seriously.

If you cannot in good conscience vote for Trump, find a candidate for whom you can cast a sincere vote expressing support for the direction of their policies and their character, and trust God with the rest in all of his sovereignty.

The only truly wasted vote is one that is not cast at all.

 

Oh yes, one more thing: We can and must do better when it comes to Christians and how we act if we’re going to be engaged in politics and  live out the command to “love one another.” This has not been an edifying year in that respect, has it?

 


Baboon image courtesy of Pixabay

3 Reasons Most Christians Should Go to College

3-reasons-college 

Recently, I’ve heard many Christians challenging the idea that college is something our kids should be considering once they finish high school. Most of the complaints fall into two groups: the high cost (including student loan debt) and ideological objections (colleges are too liberal and too secular).

Student debt meme, grabbed from Facebook

I completely understand these concerns. Parents may not be able to afford college; the basic answer to this concern is to not get sucked into the PR machine of colleges that will cost you an arm and a leg. One important way to do this is to have a specific goal in mind for going to college so you don’t waste your time and money. In short, go to college with a purpose.[i] From the financial perspective, students can work while in school, even if it requires a “gap” year or two, earn scholarships, and go to college while they live at home, or pursue an online degree—all of which so that they need not incur huge student loan debts. Like the guy in this Facebook photo.

Or parents are concerned that their kids will lose their Christian faith in college, given its secular liberal and sometimes anti-Christian environment and pressures. Let me suggest that the real problem here is not the secular or anti-Christian environment and ideas. The real problem is the fact that most churched high school grads are not schooled on the rational, factual bases for the Christian faith. So the issue is that the kids are not adequately prepared with a biblical worldview and apologetics arsenal when they’re sent into Canaan. This is not a reason to avoid Canaan, it’s a call to arms for better, deeper teaching and discipleship in churches. I wrote about how kids can keep their faith in college here.

With those objections briefly noted, there are several reasons why objections to college miss why it is important for most Christians to go to college. Let me propose three.

1. The Great Commission

As Christians, our “marching orders” are to go into “all the world” and make disciples, teaching Christ’s commandments. By “all the world,” I have a strong sense that Jesus didn’t mean “all the world except centers of higher learning,” or “all the world except where postmodern-secular humanist-LGBTQ-New Age-atheist-Marxists are going to challenge my most cherished beliefs.”

Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I commanded you.” (Matt 28:18-20)

Colleges and universities are short-term mission opportunities. There are many good Christian campus fellowships and ministries where college students can grow their own faith while also meeting other, less mature or new believers. Moreover, study groups, dorm life, and a wide range of social opportunities are where Christians are very likely to encounter non-Christians—the people who need to hear the gospel. Even better, these groups are prime audiences for apologetic conversations—most of them genuinely want to know whether there is any reasonable, rational, logical, factual basis for the Christian faith. If Christians are not participating in those conversations with their arsenal of historical and apologetic facts and arguments, many of these students may never hear them.

14 How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher? 15 How will they preach unless they are sent? Just as it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news of good things!” (Rom 10:14-15)

Colleges and universities are also long-term mission fields. Biblical Christians are extremely under-represented among college faculty. While the college environment is in many ways antagonistic toward Christians, one major reason for that is that so few Christians choose higher education as a career. How can Christians contribute to scientific knowledge? How can Christians influence such fields as philosophy, sociology, political science, social work, and English, all of which currently seem antagonistic to the faith? How can Christians rise to positions of administrative influence in colleges and universities? There literally is only one answer. More Christians have to choose careers in college education, and this requires Christians to go to college and graduate school in order to be eligible to teach and participate in the intellectual leadership of colleges and universities.

To refuse to go to college so is to abandon these crucial mission fields.

 

2. Economic self-sufficiency

A central economic principle of the Christian life is that we are supposed to provide for ourselves and our families, and even to take responsibility for our extended family if needed (e.g., 1 Tim 5:9-16).

But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. (1 Tim 5:8)

The question is, in modern and future American society, what is the path that provides the most opportunities for economic success? (Keep in mind that God can provide material blessings to whoever He pleases, and that there are no guarantees of any particular income, regardless of one’s education or religion.) In the American economy, a college education provides the best chance of getting a job, and getting a better paying job, according to US Bureau of Labor Statistics, which produced this figure.

Source: http://www.bls.gov/emp/ep_chart_001.htm

Education and Unemployment Rates. The red bars show the unemployment rates for people based on their level of education in 2014 (the latest year for which data is available). The average for the whole population was 5%, while the rates for people with less than an Associate’s degree are all higher than average. Meanwhile, people with any college degree have lower than average unemployment rates.

Education and Earning. The green bars show 2014 earnings for people of different education levels; the values represent median weekly earnings—the midpoint of all wage earners in each group. The median US worker earned $839 per week ($43,628 per year). People with less than a Bachelor’s degree earned less than average, while those with at least a Bachelor’s degree earned significantly more. For example, people with only a high school diploma earned a median $668 per week ($34,746 per year), while those with a Bachelor’s degree earned a median $1,101 per week ($57,252 per year).

This pattern of college education producing lower unemployment rates and higher incomes is not unique to 2014. The charts at this site and at this site show that this has been a consistent pattern for many years, for both younger and older workers.

Giving. Of course, the point in holding a job and getting a better paying job is not simply to earn more money, but to have more opportunities. A materially “comfortable” life is not the main point. But the reality is that having a better paying job means that, at the very least, a person can be more generous to the causes one holds dear. If Christians tithe on their income, the annual tithe on the median high school graduate’s income is $2,250 less than the tithe on the median BA degree-holder’s income. What could your local congregation or ministry do with an additional $2,250 next year?

10 Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in My house.” (Mal 3:10)

The Future Employment Outlook. What will the future hold? What are the jobs that are likely to grow and have good incomes over the next decade? In this report, Kiplinger projects those jobs to be: Speech Language Pathologist, Computer Systems Analyst, App Developer, Registered Nurse, Information Security Analyst, Health Services Manager, Medical Stenographer, Physical Therapist, and Nurse Practitioner. All of these require education after high school, and seven of the ten require at least an Associate’s degree.

College is for Christian Women, too. For many Christians it is not a given that our young women should be college bound, but there are as many reasons they should go to college as there are for young men. This should be obviously the case if God’s calling for her life needs a college degree. But if you are even skeptical of this, consider her worst-case scenario. It is possible your daughter’s husband will die, or that a divorce may unexpectedly rock her world. As news analysis has shown, “The percentage of female-headed households with children living in poverty has gone up, from 33 percent in 2000 to 41 percent in 2011. All told, more than half of all children living in poverty in this country are part of single-mother households.” The economics of being a single mother are daunting, and having a college education is a hedge against the possibility that, God forbid, a young mom will have to support her own family. This chart, which I created from data on this page, shows that women with a college degree have much higher incomes than women without a degree. It is simply prudent for our Christian young women to go to college, too.

Women's earnings, by Education

The long and the short of it is that In order to have the best prospects in the American economy to provide for your family and to increase your giving, college education gives you the best and most opportunities.

 

3. More Influential and Meaningful Career Options

Part of the testimony of Christianity over the centuries has been our role as public leaders, politicians, educators, and health care providers. Christians in Europe, for example, started most of the early universities, hospitals, and orphanages (see, for example, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies by David Bentley Hart), and most of the early colleges in the US were started by Christians for Christians (including Harvard, Yale, and Princeton!).

As I began thinking about this article, I asked my Facebook friends (the vast majority of whom are conservative Christians) two questions about influential jobs or careers. (As a political scientist, I fully admit this is an unscientific survey, but the results are instructive.) I then researched the basic education requirements of those positions; if they weren’t obvious, I used this Bureau of Labor Statistics table. Below, I organize their answers into categories based on the education required to go into these professions.

Slide2

Slide3In short, most of the “most influential” professions my friends mentioned generally require a college degree; and most of the jobs my friends think have the potential to have a positive influence in our culture generally require a college degree.

Finally, there is the PayScale Report on Meaningfulness of Jobs, based on surveys of workers and how they themselves evaluate the meaningfulness of their own work. The vast majority of jobs that workers consider socially “meaningful” generally require education after high school, and most require at least a four-year college degree. On the flip side, the PayScale report also listed workers who report that their jobs are not meaningful, and the vast majority of those jobs don’t require education after high school. The tables are in this footnote: [ii]

In short, the most influential and meaningful jobs and careers in our culture generally require post-high school education, and the vast majority require at least a four-year college degree. If Christians are going to be influential in our culture, they must pursue educational options that qualify them to hold those jobs in the first place.

 

A few other reasons…

Here are a few more reasons for going to college that I personally think are important, but would take too much space to discuss extensively here.

  • College education tends to strengthen critical thinking skills—so that as citizens in our society and culture we have the ability to evaluate and see through most of the logical fallacies and polemic we are fed by the mass media (liberal and conservative).
  • College education provides an opportunity to interact with a more diverse set of people than most of us will have for the rest of our lives—students get to spend unstructured social time with people from around the world, from different cultures, speaking different languages, and practicing different religions. (Yes—this is genuinely a good thing…see point #1 above!)
  • College students are forced to read an expansive set of works from an expansive set of topics. These improve our literacy and our ability to interact with a wider range of people on a wider range of subjects than we would absent a college learning environment. Yes, yes, you can read all those things without going to college, but once you get married and have children, it is much harder to find the time to do so.

What College Will Not Do

A college education is not the be-all and end-all of a person’s identity and value. People who don’t go to college are not inferior to those who do; indeed, many of the best people I have known in my life have not been college educated. So it’s important to acknowledge what college doesn’t do for us.

  • College will not change your value in God’s eyes. God’s love for us does not depend our level of education. An important result of this is that a person’s educational or social status should never be a cause of favoritism among Christians. Every person, rich or poor, educated or uneducated, influential or not-influential, blue-collar or white-collar is equal in the eyes of the Lord, and ought to be treated with equal respect and honor.

My brethren, do not hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal favoritism. For if a man comes into your assembly with a gold ring and dressed in fine clothes, and there also comes in a poor man in dirty clothes, and you pay special attention to the one who is wearing the fine clothes, and say, “You sit here in a good place,” and you say to the poor man, “You stand over there, or sit down by my footstool,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil motives?…if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. (James 2:1-9)

  • College will not guarantee comfort and success. Just because a person has a college degree does not mean that they are guaranteed a job, a better job, a more influential job, or a higher income than anyone else. But the statistics are in favor of people who are better educated.
  • College will not change your character. Your personal integrity is not related to your education. It does not mean you will be a superior husband, wife, father, or mother.

 

Conclusion

The potential payoff of going to college is great. It is great for the kingdom of God and the possibilities are great for Christian youth and their future families. Rather than assuming that college isn’t for you or your child, look at the opportunities. The thing is, we have to be wise and strategic in using our limited resources, and we have to prepare young people for the battle over their hearts and minds.


 

[i] One major cost-inflator is changing majors—this extends the amount of time required to complete your degree, and the cost of doing so. If you don’t have firm career goal in mind take a gap year after high school to earn college money; you can also take this time to take general education courses that will eventually transfer into a BA degree program. Give serious prayer to what the Lord wants you to do, and then pursue a degree related to that. Even if you change careers (and most people do at least a few times in their lives) having the BA degree puts you at an advantage over other potential employees who don’t.

[ii] Payscale Report: Most Meaningful Jobs.

Slide1

 

4 Reasons for Parents to Keep Reading

© Pamela Hodson | Dreamstime Stock PhotosIt was the kind of question that makes parents quake in their boots!

The other day my 13 year old daughter was reading Leviticus—on her own!—and came across a passage that perplexed her:

16 The Lord spoke to Moses: 17 “Tell Aaron: None of your descendants throughout your generations who has a physical defect is to come near to present the food of his God. 18 No man who has any defect is to come near: no man who is blind, lame, facially disfigured, or deformed; 19 no man who has a broken foot or hand, 20 or who is a hunchback or a dwarf, or who has an eye defect, a festering rash, scabs, or a crushed testicle. 21 No descendant of Aaron the priest who has a defect is to come near to present the fire offerings to the Lord. He has a defect and is not to come near to present the food of his God. 22 He may eat the food of his God from what is especially holy as well as from what is holy. 23 But because he has a defect, he must not go near the curtain or approach the altar. He is not to desecrate My sanctuaries, for I am Yahweh who sets them apart.” (Lev 21:16-23)

Because we are advocates for Down Syndrome adoptions [read more here and check out Reece’s Rainbow here] and have many friends with special needs, my daughter began wondering whether this passage means that God does not find people with special needs acceptable as ministers. And then she asked me if her thinking was right.

What a perceptive question! I am so proud of her for thinking through this passage of scripture, and I told her so.

But let’s be honest: Even though it is a good question, it is a very hard question. How would you have answered? I mean, Leviticus is often perplexing because many of the social and theological issues it deals with are so foreign to us. Who among us could pull a correct answer out of thin air?

In God’s perfect timing, I have been reading Paul Copan’s book, Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God, which addresses exactly these kinds of questions. Though Copan is dealing with New Atheist misconceptions about God, he lays out some specific ways God expressed his will that Israel understand holiness, and did so through the rules and regulations we find in Exodus and Leviticus. And (praise the Lord) he also deals with the passage that challenged my daughter!

Because I had been reading this book recently, I had a good answer for my daughter.

But I wasn’t off the hook! The next night at dinner, my other two daughters had equally grown-up questions:

The seven year old asked, “Why did Eve want to sin and disobey God?” In God’s perfect timing I had listened to a sermon that morning that addressed this exact question in a way that provided me with new insight that dovetailed precisely with the way she posed the question.

She then asked, “How can we be God’s children and He be our Father when he doesn’t have a wife?” And then the eleven year old asked, “How did people get saved before Jesus died?”

Can I tell you—these are important questions with which Christians have been dealing for two millennia. And they were asked by my tween kids, over a single meal! This is why as parents we have to be continually feeding our own minds, growing our own faith, and building our grasp of the deeper things of the Lord. Four points come to mind.

It is important to keep reading and studying…

  1. So you can learn and grow as a Christian. This might seem obvious, but the ability to answer your own questions and those of others requires some self-education. Reading the Bible is mission critical to your own preparation. But you should also be reading other materials to give you insight as to how major themes of scripture and theology work together. (For example, the Bible itself does not tell us how its manuscripts were transmitted to us; the Bible does not tell us when the Trinity became an accepted doctrine in Christian history; nor does not provide much explicit information about the social and political contexts of first-century Judea, though its narrative corresponds well with what historians tell us, for example here).

The right materials can help you learn how to think biblically about your world. Scripture admonishes us to move from spiritual “milk” to spiritual “meat” or “solid food” (1 Cor 3:1-3; Heb 5:11-14); this means we are to seek deeper answers to deeper questions, on more challenging topics than you were satisfied with as a new believer. Moreover, you are responsible for your own spiritual education in this process; maturing believers are not just sitting back and letting their preacher do the work for them, letting them simply dump information into their heads for 20 or 30 minutes each week and then call it good. We often speak of our kids having to “own their own faith” once they leave their parents’ home, but adults also have to own their own faith, too, and part of that is taking responsibility for learning.

  1. So you can answer questions from your spiritual children. As parents, our biblical obligation is to disciple our children—to pass on to them the knowledge of God and His ways to future generations. A central part of this is the children’s questions! (See Exod 13:11-15; Deut 6:20-23; Josh 4:5-7; 4:19-24.) Even if you’re not a parent, or if your kids are gone, the longer you’ve been a Christian, the more likely it is that someone else will see you as a spiritually-knowledgeable person. Therefore you owe it to them to be prepared. Again, you are responsible for seeking understanding and wisdom for the day in which you get asked that question.
  2. So you can be known as one who seeks truth. Your children will observe you feeding your mind and faith with the Bible and excellent materials that help you understand the Bible and God. As a father or mother, your children need to know that you are growing in your faith, so that they see that you believe growing in the faith is important. Not only will they tend to emulate you, but you will become known to them as a person who is trustworthy enough to ask difficult questions! In my children’s case, I also have to be honest about when I don’t know the answer to a question, and then seek out the answer.
  3. So you can listen thoughtfully. When you know what is true, you can more easily identify what is false, and this is a critical skill for Christians. If you are not feeding your mind with the truth, you will be less able to discern falsehoods that you will hear from the culture, from critics, and even from some teachers. How can you discern whether the teachings of Joel Osteen, Joseph Smith (founder of Mormonism), Rob Bell, Billy Graham, or your pastor are true or false? By learning and educating yourself on Bible truth and the truths accepted by orthodox Christians for twenty centuries, you equip yourself to provide a reasoned defense of God’s truth and the gospel (1 Peter 3:15-16); to not be captured by this world’s false philosophies ((Col 2:6-8); and to critically evaluate false teachers (Matt 7:15; Matt 24:10-24; 2 Peter 2:1).

A few cautions…

Be sure that you are seeking God’s truth. Since the early days of Christianity, heresies have cropped up that, grounded in the spirit of anti-Christ, have pulled believers away from the straight path of godly knowledge and wisdom (1 John 2:18-24, 1 John 4:1-6). Truth does not just make you feel good about yourself, or confirm what you already believe (Heb 4:12), but is to teach us, rebuke us and train us out of incorrect behaviors and beliefs (2 Tim 3:16). And second, be humble and gentle, because you are accountable for what you teach others about the Lord (James 3:1). This is another reason to be sure that you are learning correct doctrine—you want to pass on correct doctrine, lest you be held accountable by God for perpetuating heresies and false doctrines, risking the souls of your children (Heb 13:17).

Thinking back to my daughters’ questions…I have found that God knew exactly what I needed to know and when I needed to know it. Through consistently reading and studying the Bible itself, as well as reading books and listening to sermons and apologetics podcasts, God prepares me to answer the questions that arise about our Lord, His Word, and His Kingdom.

Adopting Families: Extraordinary Ordinary Families

Isabelle 2-2 Our Angel Tree Sponsored Child

“Isabelle 2-2,” Our Angel Tree Sponsored Child

This summer my family vacationed with a group of sixty extraordinary ordinary families. Almost all of these families had adopted children with special needs, and many of them had adopted their children from other countries. Down syndrome, Muscular Dystrophy, limb differences, dwarfism…you name it, children with these conditions were there. And it was beautiful.

That week was the first time I spent an extended amount of time around special needs children, and I was both amazed and humbled. I expected to meet families of great strength and spirit, and they are, but they are also ordinary families.

Most of the moms had met through online groups, especially Reeces’ Rainbow. But few of the fathers had met or corresponded with each other. It was conversations with fathers that inspired me and one in particular provided a breakthrough moment, making this whole special needs adoption process very real to me.

At the poolIn a pool filled with a hundred children, most of whom had special needs, a beautiful blond girl was in her floater near me, clearly enjoying being in the water. She was splashing and giggling and looking lovingly with her huge blue eyes and charming smile at her daddy. I struck up a conversation with the dad about his daughter. After talking for a while, he happened to mention that one of the ways their family raised money for Lyla’s adoption was by selling t-shirts.

Suddenly I made the connection. We had bought one of those t-shirts! My wife wore it for months, and all of my children knew who Lyla was and had been praying for her. In that moment I realized that before me was a little child of God who only a couple of years earlier had been languishing in an orphanage. I told dad that we had one of the shirts and he looked me straight in the eyes and said a simple, “Thank you.” Even now as I write this down, my eyes are leaking.

You can help special needs orphans and adopting families by contributing to the 2014 Angel Tree drive. Won’t you please help “bump” an angel to their next funding threshold or their full goal? Or you can give Angel Tree Dollars as a stocking stuffer!

Ordinary People

These adopting parents and siblings are just like you and me. They aren’t independently wealthy, and they aren’t Mother Teresa either. The fathers work jobs just like everyone else and are fully sold out to their adoptions. The moms mostly stay at home with their children, making their important contributions one day, one child at a time.

I spoke with several of the dads, and their stories were simple. I asked, “Why did you adopt? How did you get to that place in your life?” There were no lightning bolts, no visions of angels. They just heard the stories and saw the pictures and were convicted that someone had to do something. And the someone was them.

“Samson,” who died before he could be adopted

Their children (biological and adoptive) are outrageously typical. They are sweet, friendly, shy, demanding, generous, whiny, clever, humorous, mischievous and perfectly lovely to be around. That is, they are children are just like everyone else’s children.

Extraordinary People

These families radically transform their lives and families. In many of their home countries, orphans are on the lowest rung of the social ladder, and people with special needs are even lower. The trauma experienced by these children in orphanages is often physically and psychologically devastating, and the parents who graft them into their families take on the medical and therapeutic costs of healing and caring for these precious ones.

They spend months or years raising tens of thousands of dollars to fund the adoptions. They often sell off many their own possessions and spend countless hours fundraising through crafting and activities in their community. Many radically simplify their lifestyles in order to make the adoption happen.

Adopting families open their homes to social services and CPS agency workers in what must be a stressful and intrusive process to evaluate the quality of their home and home life, in detail.

Single moms who adopt children have to do it all—work and fundraise and raise other children they may have.

These are courageous men and women of faith and conviction. Some are Christian, some are of other faiths, but all of them are striving to improve the life situation of orphans, one at a time.

Transformed Children

Adopting families and those who contribute to their adoption funding are literally rescuing children from mostly terrible conditions. The life of a special needs orphan (especially in current and former communist countries) can be particularly brutal, because a person’s value is based on their potential contribution to society. Viewed as a drain on society, those born with special needs are often consigned to poorly-resourced orphanages with underpaid staff.

In most Eastern European countries, orphans with cognitive disabilities are sent to adult mental institutions at 4-6 years old, where they stay until they die or are adopted (huge majorities, at least 90%, of those who remain die within a few years). Special needs orphans without cognitive disabilities age out of the system at around age 16, and are released without job skills and illiterate. Human traffickers are usually waiting for them, and you can guess the rest.

Here are some “Before-and-After” photos of Reece’s Rainbow children whose lives have been transformed by adoption.

RRAT 14 4RRAT 14 3RRAT 14 2 RRAT 14 1 JoJo 1 month homeBy rescuing “the least of these” adoptive families literally transform the children’s lives. Here is one of our favorite blogs about these kinds of rescues, and you can read about various adoption stories here.

You Can Help

Adopting children internationally is quite expensive.[1] The reason I like the financial model used by Reece’s Rainbow is that when money is donated to a child’s dedicated grant, it stays connected to that child until a family is actively in the process of adopting the child. Families who commit to a child can set up their own account. In either case, Reece’s Rainbow strives to ensure that money dedicated to a child helps that child’s adoptive family when the time comes.[2]

Reece’s Rainbow’s annual fundraising campaign is Angel Tree. Angel Tree Warriors select a child, and commit to raise $1,000 to jump-start a child’s adoption grant, increasing the chance that a family will be able to afford to adopt him or her.

You can help by contributing to the 2014 Angel Tree drive. Won’t you please help “bump” an angel to their next funding threshold or their full goal? Or you can give Angel Tree Dollars as a stocking stuffer! We are so grateful to those people who helped our family raise $1,000 for Isabelle 2-2!

In this last ten days of the year, will you please take some time and look at the pictures of these children and find it in your heart to help their warrior reach their $1,000 goal?

As a Christian, God has adopted me into his family, making me an heir to the inheritance of the promises of Abraham, and one of his children.

Romans 8:15: For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, “Abba! Father!”

Galatians 4:3-7: So also we, while we were children, were held in bondage under the elemental things of the world. But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, so that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons. Because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” Therefore you are no longer a slave, but a son; and if a son, then an heir through God.

Ephesians 1:5: He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will.

Helping families do this for children is one way my family pays this gift forward to others.

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Videos Links

Here are a few videos documenting the conditions in orphanages in Romania, China, Bulgaria, and Ukraine.

Romania

China

Bulgaria (The orphanage shown here has since closed; here is a follow up BBC story )

Ukraine

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[1] I originally thought that the high cost was due to corruption and bribes in the children’s home nations. It turns out, however, that most of the money goes toward the demanding travel and nation-stay requirements, and American social service and legal fees.

[2] Reece’s Rainbow is not an adoption agency, and must comply with US and home-country rules for disbursing funds.

Three (More) Reasons Worldview Matters

In a recent blog, Trevin Wax points out three reasons that our worldview (the way we understand how the world works, what God is like, and what our purpose is) matters, and his reasons are worth re-posting.

Some Christians shrug off any effort to study philosophies and “isms.” They say things like, “I don’t worry myself with what other people think about the world. I just read my Bible and try to do what it says.”

This line of thinking sounds humble and restrained, but it is far from the mentality of a missionary. If we are to be biblical Christians, we must read the Bible in order to read the culture.

He points out that a Christian worldview matters

Because it sets us apart from the world…

Because it aids our spiritual transformation…[and]

Because it helps us know how to live.

He’s exactly on-point here. Jesus’ Great Commission sends us out in to the world in order to build His Father’s kingdom.At the same time, we’re not supposed to be exactly like the world–there is supposed to be something unique and special and attractive about the way we live and think.

Executing our mission also means that we also have to understand those around us. There are at least three points critical to understanding why our worldview is important for our mission.

First, we have to know what we believe, and why. How does a “biblical” worldview understand the world, its nature, and why people have the problems they do? Bumper-sticker theology like “God said it, I believe it, That settles it” only makes us look like ignorant rubes. In reality, we have a reasonable, rational set of reasons for our faith, based on different kinds of evidence and experience. If we don’t understand it well, we won’t be able to explain it.

Second, we have to understand other people’s perspectives. Not because all viewpoints are equally true, but so that we can understand how others view themselves. For example, if I know that a friend thinks the Bible is just a book of myths, constantly quoting scripture to “sell” Christianity to him or her just won’t fly. If another friend doesn’t believe in God, then saying God directed the selection of the books for the New Testament won’t make them any more satisfied with the exclusion of the apocryphal books or gnostic gospels.

Third, we have be able to communicate with them in a winsome but intelligent way. If we are rude or coarse while we’re trying to explain the gospel or some other point related to Christianity, our credibility suffers. As a teacher, I have to understand how my students see the world in order to explain it to them in terms they can relate to.

This is why seminars like my Worldview & Apologetics Seminar (as well as others that are out there) are important–they’re designed to help Christians see how the various parts of the world in which we live make sense, transform our lives, matter for our day-to-day living, and have eternal consequences.

 

Where is your citizenship?

US-Green-CardAs a student of politics I’ve been thinking about my citizenship. I love the United States, and I love our history, our diversity, and our shared values. At the same time, as a Christian I get frustrated by what I see in our nation’s evolving culture. While some changes have been good, many cultural changes have not been good, in the sense of being objectively good the way God sees things. If the US ever was a “Christian Nation,” we certainly aren’t anymore (even back in the 1970s Christian philosopher Francis Schaeffer labeled the US as “Post-Christian.”).

It’s useful, then for me to return periodically to a biblical definition of where my loyalties actually ought to lay. That is, when I look at the culture of death that is growing in our nation, the intractability of human trafficking, the passing away of our society’s moral standards and fabric that for so long supported our culture, and the growing antagonism toward traditional Christianity in the public square, I wonder whether being American is all it’s cracked up to be. If I travel abroad and meet up with other brothers and sisters in the Lord, would I be proud to say I’m an American?

As usual, scripture must guide my thinking, so what does the Bible say about being an American? Nothing directly, of course. The British colonies were just a twinkle in Europe’s eye when the canon of scripture closed. But the apostles Peter and Paul both address citizenship in interesting ways. In Phillipians 3:20, Paul writes that “our citizenship is in Heaven,” which enables us to bear earthly problems with a heavenly mindset. But Peter provides a more thorough teaching.

Nestled between the metaphor of The Church being a building of “living stones” with Christ as the cornerstone and instructions on submission to governing authorities, such as the king or one’s employer, Peter writes,

But you are a CHOSEN RACE, a ROYAL PRIESTHOOD, a HOLY NATION, aA PEOPLE FOR God’s OWN POSSESSION, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; 10 for you once were NOT A PEOPLE, but now you are THE PEOPLE OF GOD; you had NOT RECEIVED MERCY, but now you have RECEIVED MERCY.

11 Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers to abstain from fleshly lusts which wage war against the soul. 12 Keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles, so that in the thing in which they slander you as evildoers, they may because of your good deeds, as they observe them, glorify God in the day of visitation. (1 Peter 2:9-12, NAS)

The capitalized letters tell us that these phrases are quotations, and these are from the Old Testament—phrases that were used to describe the nation of Israel (e.g., Exodus 19:16, Deut 7:6; Deut 14:2; Hosea 1:10, 2:23). This is consistent with other New Testament passages demonstrating that Christianity is an extension of Judaism, Israel’s spiritual heritage and co-heir to the promises God made to Abraham (this is a major theme of Galatians and Romans, for example).

Our National Identity. But in the context of Peter’s first century letter the phrases suggest that Christians have a distinct national identity, just as Israel did…now Christians are the chosen race, the royal priesthood, a holy nation, and a people for God’s own possession. The identifying mark of our national identity is that we once weren’t unified (we “were not a people”) but now we are unified as “the people of God.” Our nationhood is based on the mercy we have received through Christ’s atoning sacrifice. We now have received mercy—the undeserved forgiveness for our sins—and that is what distinguishes us from other people groups, not circumcision, skin color, sex, socioeconomic status, or nation-of-origin.

Our National Mission. Peter provides a mission statement for this nation: “so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.” This means the purpose for our existence is to proclaim the truth of God’s excellence to those around us, and the most excellent thing we could proclaim is the gospel message. Thus, we are to be about acting out Jesus’  Great Commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you” (Matt 28:19-20). By definition, this means we ought to be known by our unusual message, wherever we are. If we are going out and making disciples our values are going to conflict with the culture where we find ourselves. This is likely to be uncomfortable and it will sometimes get us killed. (Just this week the North Korean government executed 13 Christians for obeying Christ in this way.) If we compromise this message and the teachings of the Lord out of some sense that we don’t want to be offensive to others or “old-fashioned” or intolerant (the values of a certain nation in which I happen to reside), we will be soon be off-track in obediently pursuing our true mission.

Our Immigration Status. Peter then uses two interesting words to describe us: “aliens and strangers.” These actually are two legal terms in the Greek.  The word translated “alien” is paroikos, “a stranger, a foreigner, one who lives in a place without the right of citizenship,” while “stranger” is parepidēmos, “one who comes from a foreign country into a city or land to reside there by the side of the natives” or “sojourning in a strange place, a foreigner.”

Did you catch that? Christians are foreigners wherever we live. We have come from our home country into a place that is not our home to live side-by-side with the natives. Our loyalty must not be displaced: we are Christians who happen to be living in a foreign land called the United States, China, Nigeria, or [insert where you reside]. This helps us make sense of our mission, because we don’t have to proclaim the excellencies of God to our countrymen, because we already know about them. It’s the citizens of the nation where we temporarily reside that need our message, so they will want to acquire naturalized citizenship and we can help our King grow our nation.

Our testimony in a foreign culture. We serve a different king than whoever is in charge of the country where we happen to reside, and we therefore represent Him where we live.  In the same way that we observe foreigners and make judgments about their people group or nation, our behavior reflects on our King and the rest of our nation. Thus, Peter instructs his countrymen to “abstain from fleshly lusts” and “keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles.”  Why? Because when we speak and act just like the people who belong to the country where we live, there won’t be anything special about us. If we’re thinking and acting just like the Gentiles around us, adapting the teachings of our true nation to the values of our temporary lodging, why would any of them see the need to change their citizenship?

Our good deeds are supposed be evidence to counteract what our opponents will say about us. Imagine living in a country where your motives are questioned, your language is defined as “hate,” you’re accused of being a threat, and your values are so unusual that people will trash you and say bad things about your home country. They’ll slander you because of your foreign ways and values; you won’t talk like them, act like them, you’ll disapprove of things they tolerate, and this will earn you their ire. UNLESS your good deeds outweigh your weirdness. It will be our good deeds that testify to why we sojourners are good to have around, why our King is righteous, and why it’s worth renouncing one citizenship for a better one. As Jesus put it, “Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (Matt 5:16).

Fellow Christian, you are part of a multi-ethnic, multi-generational, diverse, chosen, redeemed, holy nation of priests, who are temporarily residing in a foreign country. If you’re pursuing the mission our King has assigned us, expect to be rejected and hated, because His ways will contradict the ways of this land. Nevertheless, live uprightly and do good in this land so that your King and citizenship in His Kingdom will be attractive to others. In the same way that the United States was for two centuries the destination of choice for people around the world because of its freedom and opportunities, let us make citizenship in our true Kingdom a desirable thing.

What does it mean to “be” The Church?

It seems that “being” The Church is cool these days–especially when people claiming to “be” The Church contrast it with “going” to church. But what does it actually mean to “be” The Church? Let’s look at what The Church is, and then what it means to “be” it.

First, what is “The Church”? The Church (in Christianity) is all those who believe in Jesus as the Christ (Messiah), the Son of the Living God. This confession is the rock or foundation on which Jesus declared that he would build his church (Matt 16: 13-18). That means all believers in Jesus Christ as humanity’s Messiah are The Church, and each of them is a “living stone” built upon Christ’s pillars of truth (1 Peter 2:1-5).

So what does it mean to “be” The Church? Webster’s 1828 Dictionary suggests that the verb “be” means “to stand; remain or be fixed; hence to continue; … It forms, with the infinitive, a particular future tense, which often expresses duty, necessity, or purpose.” This suggests that “to be” The Church means to have an existence or presence that matches the purposes for which it was designed and intended.

So what are the purposes of The Church? The New Testament suggests several:

  1. To evangelize non-believers (Matt 28:19).
  2. To disciple believers (i.e, train them in such a way as to produce spiritual growth and maturity) so they can replicate themselves (Matt 28:19-20; Eph 4:11-16; Eph 6:4; 1 Cor 3:5-16; 2 Tim 1:5-14).
  3. To gather together for collective worship, prayer and mutual encouragement, acting in unity for the building of the kingdom of God even while exercising our individual gifts and talents (John 4:19-24; Eph 4:1-16; Heb 10:23-25; Rev 5:9-14; Luke 19:45-46; Matt 21:12-13; Mark 11:15-17).
  4. To minister to and care for those in need within The Church (Acts 6:1-4; 1 Tim 5:3-16; Rom 12:3-13; Mark 12:31; Matt 22:39-40).
  5. To minister to and care for those in need outside The Church (Mark 12:31; Matt 22:39-40; Matt 25:31-46).
  6. To glorify God by prophesying to the surrounding community (i.e., speaking truth into the culture) through our words and deeds (e.g., 1 Peter 2:9-20).

The concerns I have about the way people (whom I love) telling me that they are “being” The Church is that they seem to have a narrow idea of what that means. Usually, friends tell me they’re headed off to “be” The Church when they are going down to serve the homeless or needy. This suggests that the people who are really “being” The Church are those whose focus or action is on #5 (and maybe #6) above.

This service is noble and is one aspect of being The Church, but it is an incomplete picture of what it means to be The Church. Without pursuing the other aspects of being The Church we can’t really achieve God’s stated purposes for The Bride of Christ, can we? Being The Church involves pursuing ALL of God’s purposes for The Church. Otherwise it’s like saying that my bride is only really “being” my wife when she feeds me and praises me on Facebook (thanks for that, though, honey!).

Paul foresaw this problem when he warned Christians to avoid thinking that there is only one really useful set of gifts or activities in The Church. He wrote (1 Cor 12:17-31),

“If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? 18 But now God has placed the members, each one of them, in the body, just as He desired. 19 If they were all one member, where would the body be? 20 But now there are many members, but one body. 21 And the eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you”; or again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” 22 On the contrary, it is much truer that the members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary; 23 and those members of the body which we deem less honorable, on these we bestow more abundant honor, and our less presentable members become much more presentable, 24 whereas our more presentable members have no need of it. But God has so composed the body, giving more abundant honor to that member which lacked, 25 so that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. 26 And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it.

“27 Now you are Christ’s body, and individually members of it. 28 And God has appointed in The Church, first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, administrations, various kinds of tongues. 29 All are not apostles, are they? All are not prophets, are they? All are not teachers, are they? All are not workers of miracles, are they? 30 All do not have gifts of healings, do they? All do not speak with tongues, do they? All do not interpret, do they? 31 But earnestly desire the greater gifts.” (NAS)

People who think that they are “being” The Church only when they’re only doing one or two of The Church’s purposes (such as what Paul calls “helps” in verse 28 above) risk developing a tunnel vision of The Church that weakens and dilutes The Church and The Gospel. Each congregation of believers ought to be pursuing all of what it means to “be” The Church—when this happens, we will have the LORD’s desired impact in our world.

Haggai’s first prophesy continued (1:12-15)

For the introduction and historical context for this study, please go here.
For my post on part one of Haggai’s first prophecy, please go here.

In the first part of this prophecy, God reveals that His people got off-track in rebuilding the temple; facing discouragement opposition, they stopped His work, and then in order to justify the work stoppage, they told themselves that it just wasn’t the time for the work to get done. Instead, they focused on their own homes, building “paneled” (luxurious) houses. Thus, they had their priorities out of whack, separating themselves from God.

In the rest of the prophecy the LORD calls them to repentance, to recalibrate their priorities, and to get back into right relationship with Him.

5 Now therefore, thus says the LORD of hosts, “Consider your ways! 6 You have sown much, but harvest little; you eat, but there is not enough to be satisfied; you drink, but there is not enough to become drunk; you put on clothing, but no one is warm enough; and he who earns, earns wages to put into a purse with holes.” 7 Thus says the LORD of hosts, “Consider your ways!” (NAS) 

Twice He says, “Consider your ways!” (The NIV translates it “Give careful thought to your ways!”).  Now, whenever the Lord repeats himself it’s not because he lacks imagination, it’s because He is making a point very strongly. Even though their houses are paneled, their financial situation is difficult—their harvest doesn’t match their sowing, they never seem to have enough to eat or drink, their clothing is spare, they can’t seem to keep hold of their money. Somehow, God is connecting these situations with what they are (or are not) doing.

The reason for this never-enough life they’re living is revealed in verses 8-11: God himself has withheld His blessings.

8 “Go up to the mountains, bring wood and rebuild the temple, that I may be pleased with it and be glorified,” says the LORD. 9 “You look for much, but behold, it comes to little; when you bring it home, I blow it away. Why?” declares the LORD of hosts, “Because of My house which lies desolate, while each of you runs to his own house. 10 Therefore, because of you the sky has withheld its dew and the earth has withheld its produce. 11 I called for a drought on the land, on the mountains, on the grain, on the new wine, on the oil, on what the ground produces, on men, on cattle, and on all the labor of your hands.” 

Why has he withheld the blessings of the harvest? It’s because they have neglected building his house (1:4,9). They rebuilt the altar and the foundation for the temple, but then stopped (Ezra 3-4). They hunkered down in their self-centered worlds and forgot their calling as the people of God! He has been disciplining them, not through catastrophe, but by simply giving them only enough to get by. Because they’re off-track in terms of their priorities and obedience, they have brought poverty on themselves, even though they try to project an image of success through their paneled houses.

What does God want instead? He wants them to

> Reflect on their purpose as His children (“Consider your ways!”). By doing this, they will realize their need for humility before the Lord.
> Be obedient (“rebuild the temple, that I may be pleased with it and be glorified”). By doing this, He will be glorified.

Notice what God doesn’t promise: He doesn’t explicitly tell them that if they consider their ways and repent they will get a better harvest or have an easier life. He simply points out the facts of their situation, tells them why it is what it is, and tells them what to do instead. No new covenant is established, He just lets them process these things for themselves.

I love their response.

12 Then Zerubbabel [and] Joshua [and] all the remnant of the people, obeyed the voice of the LORD their God and the words of Haggai the prophet, as the LORD their God had sent him. And the people showed reverence for the LORD.

Their first response was not to get busy doing stuff, it was to humble themselves and reverence the Lord. This is what the Lord really wanted in the first place…He wanted their hearts. His response to them is immediate:

13 Then Haggai, the messenger of the LORD, spoke by the commission of the LORD to the people saying, “ ‘I am with you,’ declares the LORD.”

They must have been thrilled! Just a few minutes ago, God wouldn’t even claim them as His Own (1:2), and now he declares that He is with them!

After they re-oriented their hearts in God’s direction, three weeks later they went back to work:

14 So the LORD stirred up the spirit of Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and the spirit of Joshua the son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and the spirit of all the remnant of the people; and they came and worked on the house of the LORD of hosts, their God, 15 on the twenty-fourth day of the sixth month in the second year of Darius the king.

What can we learn from this exchange?

Remember, The Church is now the temple of the Lord (1 Cor 3:16-17; 1 Cor 6:19-20; 2 Cor 6:16; Eph 2:19-22; 1 Peter 2:4-6); each Christian is part of The Church; your local congregation is a collection of pieces of The Church in your community.

  1. God wants our hearts. God didn’t “return” to his people when they went back to rebuilding a building, He came back to then when they humbled themselves and reoriented their hearts toward Him. If you, your family, or your church are not humble before the Lord, then you will be adrift spiritually. Even if things seem successful from a worldly perspective (after all, the Jews were in paneled houses), you might not be pleasing the Lord.
  2. Our hearts can get discouraged and distracted. When we get our spiritual priorities out of order, we miss out on opportunities that God wants for us. If we listen to those who discourage (like the Samaritans did to the Jewish remnant) we will lose focus and drive to do what we’re supposed to do. Watch out for leaders or others who are about the business of discouraging and who exhibit a spirit of condemnation. They will push the faithful off the right track instead of edifying them, and dishearten the poor in spirit instead of ministering to them.
  3. God wants our obedience. It’s not that the Jews were particularly evil! They just weren’t obedient. What is God calling you, your family, or your church to do, right now, this moment, where He has planted you? For parents and church leaders, this means calling and equipping those for whom you’re responsible. If you say you’re supposed to evangelize, but never train or equip for evangelizing, the evangelizing won’t happen. If you ask a child to do a task, but never train the child how to do the task, they’ll be handicapped from the outset. In both of these cases, the real problem is with the leader or the parent, not the unequipped church member or untrained child.
  4. Pay attention to the clues! The Jewish remnant wasn’t in right relationship with God, and so He withheld blessings. Are there areas of spiritual blessing that your family or church are lacking? Are you or your children drifting from the Lord? Are people not being saved in your church? Has spiritual growth atrophied? Are spiritually mature people tuning out and leaving instead of plugging in? These may be signs of the Lord withholding his harvest from you because of your wrong priorities, distracted hearts, and disobedience.

Applying these lessons to you is up to you. Consider what aspects of your life you may need to re-orient and recalibrate in order for the Lord to declare to you, “I am with you.” Humble yourself, seek first His kingdom, and He will add all these things to you. I can tell you from experience that when you take these first steps, the Lord will encourage and energize you in ways you may never have known.