The Antidote to Human Pride

I knew in that instant this was the antidote to all that was wrong with me.


I didn’t grow up in the Protestant tradition. I wouldn’t say that I had a high view of God. It was more like a distant view, and His grace was a foreign concept.

I experienced a leap in understanding of God’s grace way back when I became a believer, about 40 years ago. That leap was like going from zero mph to 60 mph in a matter of seconds.

I was selling books door-to-door over the summer between freshman and sophomore years in college for the Southwestern Book Company. After giving my spiel to an insurance salesman one day, he asked me if he could ask me a question. Not knowing what he was about to ask, or that it would change my life forever, but being curious, I said, Ok.”

So, he asked, “When you die, will you go to heaven?”

I had never thought about it before, but I lived with the guilt of all my failings, guilt mixed with a good measure of prideful disappointment in myself. I was raised Catholic, you see. Catholicism is good for keeping our failings front and center in our minds. Not only that, but knowing all the things I “needed” to do to make them right, and not doing them, only added to the load!

Not going to church anymore, not being appropriately devout, not saying all the “Hail Marys” and “Our Fathers” and all the things I didn’t pay particular attention to, or remember much about, while being told of their imminent importance, compounded the weight of the knowledge that my life wasn’t right.

But, I wouldn’t have associated what was “wrong” with me as anything having to do with God – if He really existed. I never really thought about whether God existed. I think I just accepted that He did, but I wasn’t much interested in Him at that point. The fact of my disinterest didn’t lighten my load in the moment when that pivotal question was proposed to me on that day in the insurance salesman’s home.

The question was followed by a brief, but uncomfortable moment of silence. I was taken aback. I wasn’t ready for that kind of a question. It summoned up the deepest angst that lurked in my being, and I didn’t know just how to respond, for surely there was a “right” response.

My friendly interrogator rephrased the question a moment later: “If you were standing before Jesus right now, what would you say to Him? Why should He let you in to His heaven?”

Of course, it is God’s heaven, isn’t it? The weight of the realization that heaven was God’s domain, and I was an outsider rested with full force upon me in the next moment. How would I convince Him to let me in? How could I convince Him?

Naturally, I let loose all the things I could think of that might matter to God. I recently begun a journey. I had been through years of reckless, angry and self-destructive living, hard drinking, indulgent drug taking, and I was angry at the world (for no good reason I can now admit) … I was going nowhere fast just a short while ago, but I had changed.

The truth is that I woke up, after a series of mishaps, to the fact that my life was likely to be very short if I didn’t change course.  I totaled two cars and had some other close calls. I was run over by a car in which I had been a passenger driven by a “friend” who wasn’t even old enough to drive, and we were doing something stupid and illegal. Something about all of this and having to attend school in a wheelchair gave me pause about where I was heading.

So, I changed. I made a conscious decision to go the other way. I realized at the same time that I was desperately empty inside, out of touch with real meaning in my life and determined to find it. I became a good student in my last year in high school and became a truth seeker. Genuinely.

I rapidly recalled these things to the quietly earnest man in front of me. He let me go on for a while, before he gently stepped in with the next question, the question that changed my life. He asked: “What would you say if heaven was a free gift, and you couldn’t earn it?”

…. That question lit up my mind and heart and shocked me into paradigm shifting silence.

I was speechless. I had no retort. I was stunned.

He continued, unhindered by me as I stood like a prisoner blinded by the sunlight pouring in from a door suddenly opened to the outside world. “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9)

I knew in that instant this was the antidote to all that was wrong with me.

Continue reading “The Antidote to Human Pride”

A Complex World Suggests a Robust God

As powerful as our telescopes are, we cannot see the end of our ever-expanding universe. Neither can we even see the beginning.


It seems that many people have this idea that God and spiritual things should be simple. They react skeptically to “complicated” responses to hard questions. When I look at the universe, though, I wonder why people think like that.

Some truths about the universe are simple. We don’t have to be rocket scientists to understand gravity. We know it when we feel it and see it. On the other hand, the computations and deeper understanding of gravity and its interrelationship with other cosmological constants is anything but simple.

Some truths about God are simple too. For instance, that God is love seems simple enough. That God created the universe is pretty simple to grasp also. Now ask, “Why is there evil in the world?”

If we take the universe as an example, however, it should be evident to us that a God who might have created the universe would be far from simple. We should not expect (or demand), therefore, that the resolution of hard questions to be simple. God must be, at least, more robust than the world created by such a God.

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21st Century Reflections on 2nd Century Description of Christians

Rome, Italy. Trajan Markets, built in 2nd century AD by Apollodorus of Damascus in the time of Emperor Trajan

The following descriptions of Jews contrasted with Christians in the Roman Empire inspire my thoughts today:

“Rome respected Judaism because the religion was ancient and enduring. Jews had survived opposition for over a thousand years and, in spite of that opposition, had spread throughout the Roman Empire and beyond.… Roman authorities did not require Jews to venerate the gods (say, through sacrificial offerings in local temples) or to serve in the military, and Romans viewed and used at least some local synagogues as civic centers, which implies that Judaism served the larger Roman public, however modestly. Jews were far more integrated into Roman society than it might at first appear.

“…. Jews worshiped one God, Yahweh, to whom they were exclusively devoted; followed a rigorous set of ethical and religious practices; and refused to participate in pagan rituals and festivals. They observed a way of life that set them culturally apart. The Jewish rite of circumcision kept Romans who were attracted to Judaism from wholesale conversion. Jewish kosher laws required that Jews shop in their own stores, their dress codes made them noticeable, and their commitment to marry only fellow Jews prevented them from assimilating into Roman culture.”


“Christians appeared to live like everyone else. They spoke the local language, lived in local neighborhoods, wore local styles of clothing, ate local food, shopped in local markets, and followed local customs. ‘For Christians cannot be distinguished from the rest of the human race by country or language or custom. They do not live in cities of their own; they do not use a peculiar form of speech; they do not follow an eccentric manner of life.’ At a surface level Christians appeared to blend in to Roman society quite seamlessly.

“Yet they were different, too, embodying not simply a different religion but a different—and new—way of life. ‘They live in their own countries, but only as aliens. They have a share in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign land is their fatherland, and yet for them every fatherland is a foreign land.’ They functioned as if they were a nation within a nation, culturally assimilated yet distinct at the same time. ‘Yet, although they live in Greek and barbarian cities alike, as each man’s lot has been cast, and follow the customs of the country in clothing and food and other matters of daily living, at the same time they give proof of the remarkable and admittedly extraordinary constitution of their own commonwealth.’”[1]

This is the fascinating description of Christians from an anonymous letter writer in the Second Century to Diognetus, a Roman official, which the writer of the book from which the excerpt is taken compares to the Roman view of the Jews in the same time period. The comparison inspires a number of thoughts that are worth exploring.

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The Unwitting Encounter that Inspired A Great Christian Novel

Gen. Lew. Wallace, 1827-1905, he was an American lawyer, union general, governor of the New Mexico Territory, politician, and author, vintage line drawing or engraving illustration

John Ingersoll, the son of a Congregationalist pastor who shared a pulpit with the famous American revivalist, Charles Finney, was an agnostic. His father was mistreated by the church, suffering contentious charges for deviating from “Old School Calvinism”, and he left the ministry and the church. His son, John, who was young at the time, was so influenced that he became a lifelong agnostic, preaching as vociferously against faith in God as his father once preached faith in God.

Such was the great, negative influence of the tensions among Christian brothers New England in the early 1800’s. Though he unwittingly sparked one of the great Christian novels in American history, Ingersoll led a life of hostility toward God and religion for which he was well-known.

The schism between Old School Calvinism and New School Calvinism lasted about 20 years beginning in about 1837. That’s it. Only 20 years! (Wikipedia)

The tension pitted conservatives from the “Old School” against upstarts from the “New School”. The Old School adherents stuck close to the “Westminster standards” and didn’t support the “New School revivalism” championed by Presbyterian revivalists, like Finney, and New England Congregationalist theologians like Jonathan Edwards.

For those interested in history, Princeton Theological Seminary was the defender of the Old School, while Yale and Lane Theological Seminary became the champion of the New School. Looking back, it is with some wonder that Princeton was on the conservative side of this controversy, the same Princeton today that produced the great skeptic New Testament scholar, Bart Ehrman.

It is also noteworthy that the “renewed interest in religion” generated by the revivalism of the Second Great Awakening that took place in the early 1800’s inspired the social activism that energized the abolitionist movement. Lyman Beecher, the father of the famous abolitionist, Harriet Beecher Stowe, was a New School Calvinist.

Revivalism and slavery were key issues in this schism. Revivalism divided the Old School and New School; while slavery divided both and eventually brought elements of the Old School and New School back together again into factions that were divided more along geographic lines – north and south – as the country teetered toward civil war.

I am struck that social and theological movements always stretch the wine skins and leave people divided, today no less than in the past. While conservatives entrench, progressives plow new paths. While old, brittle wine skins burst, wasting the contents on the ground, over eager revolutionaries might abandon the wine skins altogether. Either way, the wine (the very point of the wine skin) is often lost in the process.

I am reminded of the “proverb” spoken in Ecclesiastes: “It is good to grasp the one thing and also not let go of the other; for the one who fears God comes forward with both ….” (Ecc. 7:18 NASB)

Throughout history we see God moving among people, emphasizing new things at different times. People react by resisting, holding back and becoming entrenched or embracing the new thing, letting go of the old and eventually tilting off the path in the other direction. Wisdom lies in grasping the new thing God is doing without letting go of the truth firmly established by God in the past. This is the stretch that requires the new wine skins!

But back to the story of John Ingersoll and his unwitting influence on the writer of one of the greatest Christian novels written by an American. Lew Wallace was a Civil War General who commanded Union troops at Shiloh. Ingersoll served under him in that great battle. It was their chance encounter that prompts this article.

Continue reading “The Unwitting Encounter that Inspired A Great Christian Novel”

The First Fruits of Another World


I did a previous blog article on the radical nature of the Gospel Paul preached, a Gospel he received directly from Jesus, that was confirmed by the closest disciples of Jesus. I ended the article by noting that this Gospel was not primarily about cultural and societal change. Jesus didn’t come merely to transform culture and society, as the Zealots of the First Century supposed the Messiah would.

Jesus came preaching the good news of the Kingdom of God, a kingdom into which we can be born again by receiving Jesus, by believing in his name. The paradigm shift begins here and now, in this world, giving us “the right to become children of God, … born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” (John 1:12-13)

Though the reality of the kingdom of God begins here and now, the ultimate fruition of that new birth, that adoption as children of God, still awaits us. The Zealots didn’t understand that in the First Century. They wanted to overtake the Roman government by force and establish the reign of the Messiah then and there in the First Century. When Jesus died on the cross, not even the disciples understood what was going on. Paul understood, however, we he said:

“For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” (Romans 8:22-23)

Paul expanded on these thoughts in his letter to the Corinthians when he spoke about death coming into the world through the first Adam, while resurrection from the dead came into the world through Jesus (1 Cor. 15:20-28-42-55) First is the perishable, followed by the imperishable. What is perishable doesn’t beget the imperishable. We must be born again (the ultimate paradigm shift), from natural people into spiritual people.

This paradigm shift begins in this natural life when we are born again, but the seed of that new birth is spiritual, imperishable. When the last trumpet” will sound, “the dead will be raised imperishable”. (1 Cor. 15:52) We await in this life the fruition of the ultimate paradigm shift (from the perishable to the imperishable) in which those who have been adopted as children of God are ushered into the kingdom of God with “the whole creation” following behind in the transformation from natural world to an imperishable world where there are no tears, no pain, no sorrow – only the ultimate fulfillment of all that we could possible hope for.

We won’t see the fruition of these things in this life; rather we look forward to the resurrection from the dead and our inheritance of the imperishable life that swallows death up in victory. This is where I left off in the previous blog post: Paul… the Radical Countercultural? Picking it up from there, I want to begin here with second half of the passage quoted from the letter to the Galatians in that first article.

Paul spoke to the Galatians about the”adoption as sons” for all people who believe in Jesus. He alludes to the centuries old Greco-Roman tradition of adoption of men by men – the passing on of inheritance and legacy through the male line, which was the entrenched cultural structure of a long patriarchal society. But then, Paul did the ultimate mic drop when he said:

“For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.” (Gal 3:27-29)

In one sentence, Paul eliminated the disparity between genders. And not only that, the differences between religious, philosophical, cultural, societal and all other things that divide people from each other.

But this was no cultural revolution. The rest of the story is found in the verses that follow in Chapter 2 of the letter to the Galatians.

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Paul… the Radical Countercultural?

Neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female: we are “all one in Christ Jesus”

Paul Mosaic at Chora Church in Istanbul

People today don’t give Paul (or Jesus or the Bible) enough credit for “forward thinking”. We like to think that modern man has pulled himself (and herself) up by the bootstraps, a notion that emerges from our modern view of ourselves, of beings that have made ourselves after a long, doggedly determined climb out of the primordial slime.

Paul is often called patriarchal and even misogynist. He is blamed for the “backward thinking” that prevails in some areas of the church. Bronze age ideas and norms, they say, enslave the church in primitive thinking that quashes the rights of more sophisticated modern people.

There are dozens of examples in Scripture that this isn’t true. When we read the Scripture through a modern lens and don’t understand or appreciate the context of the time when it was written, we fail to appreciate the radical nature of Scripture.

I have written on these things many times in the past, but my attention is drawn to one example today. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul wrote:

“[I]n Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.
“I mean that the heir, as long as he is a child, is no different from a slave, though he is the owner of everything, but he is under guardians and managers until the date set by his father. In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world. But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.” (Galatians 3:26-4:7)

Let’s unpack this a bit, and I think you will see what I am talking about. First, we need to consider the context of the time in which this letter was written. Then we need to look closely at what Paul is saying.

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The Danger of Getting What We Want

We often choose earthly treasures that we can’t keep over eternal treasures that we can’t lose.


Tim Keller paraphrased and quoted a columnist back in the 1980’s in a recent sermon he gave. The columnist knew a number of celebrities personally. Keller paraphrased the columnist: “I knew them when they were working behind the counter the cosmetic counter at Macy’s, and I knew them when they were bouncers at the village clubs, and all that, and then they became famous, and they became movie stars, and then they became more unhappy then they were before.”

Keller paraphrased further: “That giant thing they were striving for, that ‘fame thing’ that was going to make everything OK, that was going to make their lives bearable, that was going to provide them personal fulfillment and with ‘ha ha happiness’, it had happened and nothing changed. They were still them. The disillusionment turned them howling and insufferable.”

Keller then quoted the columnist, who said, “If God really wants to play a rotten practical joke on us, He grants your deepest wish and then giggles merrily as you suddenly realize you want to kill yourself.”

God made us for Himself.

Of course, the idea of God “giggling merrily” is obviously not biblical, but the rest of it is. God made us for Himself. He weeps at our choosing to follow after the things we want instead of Him. He weeps for us because it can never fulfill us.

I write this on the heels of my last article in which I reflected on celebrity Christianity. More accurately, celebrities who have recently become Christians. In the article, I also reflected on “celebrity” Christians, people who were thrust into the Christian limelight at an early age, before a firm foundation of spiritual growth and relationship with God.

And I wonder how those celebrities turning to Christianity will fair into the future. They are used to the warm (and sometimes harsh) light of public celebrity. That is where they live, but what they need is the nutrient rich soil of God’s word, prayer, relationship to God, fellowship and all the things God must do in us in the dark recesses of our hearts, well out of the light of public life.

Like the rich young ruler who was searching, but found it too difficult to leave behind all his wealth to which he had become accustomed, celebrity  fame and fortune may difficult to give up. Even though it doesn’t satisfy the deepest longings of the soul, it is still (likely) everything they thought they wanted.

Riches, and celebrity, and comfort, and recognition become a trap. We are lured in. Our own desires propel us hard in the direction of the sunlight. We strain our whole lives with all of our effort. All of our thoughts, hopes and dreams carry us along, and the things we gain along the way, even if they turn sour in our hands, are difficult to give up…. If it was all we wanted.

Continue reading “The Danger of Getting What We Want”