Sunday, June 26, 2022

We are Broken, But Not “Born That Way” #JesusFollowers


Many of those around us, and also ourselves, are frequently hurting, struggling, confused, and yes, broken, by our circumstances and experiences.

And when we seek out our religious leaders for answers, many tell us that we are defective by Nature, “totally depraved” or “broken” from birth, morally unable to do Good, even if we wanted to.

Some claim that, from our birth, we are slaves to a base, “fallen” Nature that we can’t control, and that only the magic remedy of a “simple salvation prayer” can fix us.

BUT DON’T YOU BELIEVE IT! The Bible and the teachings of our Master, Jesus, actually tells a vastly different story than the crafty theology of later men.

The Bible tells us that King David, who was broken himself from living recklessly and Godlessly, turned back to God, repented of his sins, and lived blamelessly, with “clean hands” before God.

David, after repentance, says, “I have been blameless before Him and have kept myself from sin.” (Psalms 18:24) So may we, as well.

The Bible shows an entire city, Nineveh, turning to Yahweh, the One God of Israel, and repenting of their sins, and receiving forgiveness from that One God. If pagan Nineveh can turn and do Good, we can, too!

And what about Adam? Did his sin in the Garden “curse” us with the inability to choose to do Good? No. We find no curse or excuse to avoid doing Good in Adam's story.

Adam’s own son, Cain, was told by God that he would be rewarded if he did what was right, and that he COULD and MUST do Good.

“If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at the door; it desires you, BUT YOU MUST RULE OVER IT.” (Gen. 4:7)

There is therefore no hint of a curse making us morally unable to do good in the Adam and Eve story.

Jesus tells a parable of a young man who, after squandering his family’s wealth after demanding his inheritance early, returns to his father in a spirit of repentance and receives forgiveness.

The Bible repeatedly tells us that the condition of sinful disobedience is just that – a failure to obey God’s Moral Laws for living. And that the only remedy for that failure is to repent, and seek to DO Righteousness.

“Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean. Remove the evil of your deeds from My eyes. Cease to do evil, Learn to do good,” urges Isaiah (1:16-17)

“Do what is right and Good in the sight of Yahweh,” (Deut. 6:18)

“Trust in Yahweh (the LORD) and do Good.” (Psalms 37:3)

“Turn from evil and do Good. Seek peace and pursue it. (Psalms 34:19)

The Book of Job instructs, “The righteous will hold to their ways, and those with clean hands will grow stronger.” (Job 17:9)

The clear lessons of the Bible teach that we may be broken right now, but we certainly weren’t “born that way,” and we should not remain that way.

The experiences of Jesus teach us that human beings do, indeed have the ability (and the responsibility) to recognize when we are on the wrong path, and repent of it.

We can seek, as Jesus proved by his life, to grow in wisdom and in spiritual strength, enduring whatever life throws at us, by relying on God’s plan for our lives (a plan which is nothing more, or less, than following His path of Righteousness.)

Suffering ups and downs in life is completely natural, says the Bible, and so is overcoming them.

Further, Jesus’ own life teaches us that we as human beings can thrive even when persecuted, although most of us don’t have to go through the verbal and physical abuse HE endured, certainly.

In fact, Jesus taught a Gospel of ACTIVELY DOING RIGHTEOUSNESS. That, and only that, was his message, which he described as the way we are to bring in God’s Heavenly Kingdom right here on the earth, right now.

And unlike all other previous prophets, and all religious leaders since, Jesus set himself up as a MODEL for imitation. “Follow me,” doesn’t mean just walk behind Jesus, admiring him, but to actively pursue Righteousness through doing Good, as he demonstrated for us.

He tells us to “deny your Self” and actively, and daily, “take up your cross” (Mark 8:34; Matt 16:24) by serving others. We are to clothe the naked, give food and drink to the hungry and thirsty, and visit the sick and those in prison. (Matt. 25)

If this Gospel message of his sound like a challenge, it is. It’s the challenge Jesus gave all who follow him, and if you failed to detect our “fallenness” in his words, or an excuse of “moral inability” to do Good that would allow us to avoid taking up this challenge, you didn’t miss it. Because t’s not there. He never said it. And neither do the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures he quoted and studied as a youth.

It’s not in his words because it’s not in our Nature. Our Nature is meant to be perfected through Righteous action, just as God and His scripture, through His prophets, and as His Son, Jesus, spelled out clearly for us to imitate.

And if you somehow missed that message in your church last Sunday, you need to ask WHY you didn’t hear it.

Because the world needs that message of healing and help. And it needs it RIGHT NOW.

Sunday, June 19, 2022

What Does God Think We Can Do? #JesusFollowers


Just a few verses into the Hebrew Bible, in the book of Genesis, there is a well-known story that has valuable lessons that, if better known, could change the way we understand God, our human abilities, and our responsibilities as God’s children.

The story of Cain and Abel – well known as an allegorical tale of brotherly strife – begins with both brothers offering up a sacrifice to God. Abel offers up animals on an altar, while Cain offers fruits and vegetables. However…
"[Yahweh] didn’t respect Cain and his offering. So Cain was very angry, and the expression on his face fell. And Yahweh said to Cain, "Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door. It desires you, but you must rule over it." (Gen. 4:5b-8)
The story goes on to tell how the angry, confused Cain sought out and murdered his brother Abel. God then finds Cain in hiding, and asks him where his brother was. Cain answered with that well-known line (as if he was innocent of the crime) "Am I my brother's keeper?" God then punishes Cain by marking him for all eternity.

So, what lessons does this story teach us, today, about human beings, and our abilities?

First, God laid out two paths of action to Cain, equally offering acceptance (to be “Lifted” in the Hebrew, meaning exalted) if he had chosen to do what was right.

God also told Cain he had the ability to RULE OVER or “master” sin, if he chose to do it.

God’s offer of acceptance to Cain, and the choice he was given, prove that he had the ability to do what is right – and so do we.

But this simple lesson has been invisible to many religious teachers, who have long denied that we as human beings have the ability to choose to do what is right.

Some – living hundreds of years after Jesus' ministry – taught that Cain’s father, Adam (the first human being, along with Eve, in the book of Genesis) sinned against God. This, they say, caused all of his descendants, including us, to be UNABLE TO AVOID SINNING.

They also taught that this inability was passed on to us through our ancestors when they had sex. This is the teaching of Martin Luther, John Calvin, and all modern Protestant and Catholic churches.

If this is true, then we are powerless to avoid sin – and powerless to do what God commands us to do.

But the actual words of this story blow apart these man-made theories.

Cain, the very child of Adam in this story, had the ability to NOT kill Abel, had he chosen that option. He was assured by God that he could CHOOSE to not sin, and in fact, said he MUST do so, to avoid punishment.

This story teaches us volumes about God’s nature, as well as human nature. God created us to obey His moral commandments. And because God is our Creator, He knows of what we are capable, and calls us to seek out His holiness and obey Him.

Rather than telling his disciples that we could do nothing EXCEPT sin, Jesus – the one whom God chose as our example and teacher and anointed as His spokesman – taught them, and through them, us, that we are to be "perfect, as your Father in Heaven is perfect." (Matt. 5:48)

And the one who said he did all things that pleased God also said that we must follow him, doing all that he had done. (John 13:15; 14:12)

In saying this, Jesus echoed all the Hebrew prophets who had come before him - because he did not teach anything new about our ability to obey God that was not already known.

In the Hebrew Scriptures, we are assured that God's commandments are, "not too hard for you," and "The word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, SO THAT YOU CAN DO IT." (Deut. 30:11, 14) Isaiah writes, "Wash yourselves, make yourself clean. Put away the evil of your doings from before my eyes. Cease to do evil. Learn to do well." (1:16)

The Psalmist writes: "Surely there is a reward for the righteous; surely there is a God who judges the earth." (Psalms 58:11)

“He has shown you, O man, what is good," writes Micah (6:8)

We are called upon to "Hate evil, and love good" says Amos (5:15)

"Choose this day whom you will serve," says Joshua (24:15)

"If you choose, you can keep the commandments; and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice. Set before you are fire and water; to whatever you choose, stretch out your hand. Before everyone are life and death, whichever they choose will be given them." (Sirach 15:15-17)

Therefore, while sin may be waiting by the door for us, seeking to master us, we may indeed defeat – and master – sinful temptations. We HAVE THAT ABILITY, given to us by our Creator!

If we have damaged this ability because of our past behavior, God will grant us greater moral strength when we ask (Psalm 138:3; Prov. 2:6; James 1:5)

That we have this ability born within us is amazingly good news, because it shows that our Creator knows us, and still gives us the freedom to act and choose to obey Him freely!

Through the teachings of our Master, Jesus, we know that God is like a parent, Who allows His children to make mistakes, repent, and turn back to doing what is right and good.

We should thank God, our Creator, in Whose image we were created, for trusting us to make our own choices, and let's pledge to always take that awesome responsibility seriously in all that we do.

Sunday, June 12, 2022

Jesus Shows Us Our Human Potential #JesusFollowers

When we think about ourselves and our fellow human beings, we often think of how much we have yet to achieve, not just physically or as a species, but spiritually and morally as individuals.

We know that we are spiritually incomplete, and we are often at a loss as to what our next steps should be to advance ourselves.

We innately know that we can and should be better than we are. We also know that human beings have great potential within us.

However, Christian preachers, especially Evangelical ones, tend to view the very words "human potential" as anti-religious language.

The "human potential movement," of the past century, which does focus on humanity apart from any religious aspects of our lives, hasn't made this a difficult conclusion to draw.

Christian pastors and theologians have long said that many are trying to reach their full human potential without God in the picture. and they are right to point out the futility of striving without God. 

But it can easily, and more positively, be argued that Jesus himself, and the Hebrew Bible that he grew up with and studied as a youth, understood and accepted the fact that human beings had great potential, and explained in great detail how to reach it. In fact, his teachings almost shout the concept that we were created for something better by our Creator.

For example, Jesus says that we are to be perfect, just as our heavenly Father is perfect. And while modern Evangelicals tend to interpret this to mean that we will BE perfected, "one day," in heaven, or when we are "made perfect" by God, apart from any effort of our own, Jesus didn't seem to mean this. 

In fact, the preceding paragraph in the Book of Matthew spells out actions that we are to do over and above what others do, when it comes to loving not only those who love us, but our enemies as well. 

Luke also record Jesus as saying that we are to be merciful, just as our Father in heaven is merciful. In this very teaching, not only is he saying we are able to be as God is, but he teaches us that God is merciful with those who are trying and seeking to do His will.

We know this because elsewhere, he says we are to forgive 70 times seven times (in other words, endlessly) and that if we expect to be forgiven by God for OUR shortcomings, we must forgive others theirs. (Matt. 6:14-15)

And Jesus demonstrated such radical forgiveness as he hung dying on the cross, forgiving those who had put him there.

In these ways, we begin to reach our full human potential in imitation of Jesus himself. And that is a key to understanding our potential as human beings.

Unlike a regular philosopher or a mere teacher who might have said some good things that were recorded in history, Jesus not only taught, but gave us a living example, of how we are to live in accordance with God's will.

He showed us how a perfect human looks in real life. And then he said, "follow me." And not simply to follow him around to DIA, but to "Go, and do likewise" and even "do greater things than I." And finally, "go into all the world, teaching others to obey my teachings."

We can therefore set the preachers' minds at ease. We will not, and cannot, seek to do God's will and become all God wishes for us to become, apart from God's help and the knowledge of what that Godly path is. And that path was made clear by the life and example of Jesus.

We are born with an amazing potential for goodness, and for greatness. This potential must be recognized as a gift of God, and it is reached by seeking to follow our Creator's plan for our lives. 

To do this, we need only follow the teachings of the one whom God chose for us as a perfect example - someone who pleased God with all he did, and in doing so, achieved his full potential as a human being. We may be assured by his life and words that we may do the same.

Sunday, June 5, 2022

Is Human Perfection Possible? [JesusFollowers]

"If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me." (Matt. 19:16 NIV)

When the various appetites and passions that take place in man are constantly and uniformly directed to, and placed upon, their proper objects and when each and every one of these are kept in due bounds, one not indulged to the suppressing of another such a creature may be said to be perfect.

When the springs of action in us, namely selfishness and benevolence, hope and fear, and the like, are duly balanced, so as that one isn't greater than the others; and, when all these, together with the principle of activity or self-motion, are wholly subject to that principle of intelligence which is likewise a part of the human constitution, and which was intended to guide and direct the whole; then, according to his nature, this is called human perfection, not in distinction from, but considered to be the same as, Christian perfection.

The design of Christianity was to engage us to act the part, and to fill up the just and proper characters of human beings; and. not to enable us to resemble the characters of Angels. The design of Christianity was to make us good people; and not to make us more or better than human beings; and therefore, Christian perfection must be the same as human perfection.

Great riches are likely to engross the hearts and affections of those who possess them, and this shuts up their tenderness and compassion to the rest of their fellow-creatures. And although a person's benevolent actions ought to be proportioned to his wealth and riches, and to the needs and circumstances of his neighbors; Jesus knew, as we do, that great possessions and great benevolence seldom meet in the same person; and this justifies our Master's remark to the rich young man.

People like the young man he referred to are too ready to rest satisfied with not having done evil, whereas, our Master assures us, that as great a regard must be had for doing good, as for simply not doing evil, and that not actively doing good will render us just as blameworthy, and condemnable. "For I was hungry, and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you didn't take me in, naked and you didn't clothe me, in prison and you didn't visit me." (Matt. 25:41)

A benevolent disposition is the most noble and God-like part of our Nature, and, is therefore called the perfection of it. Jesus clearly states (Luke 6:36) "Be merciful (or kind, or benevolent) just as your Father is merciful." and as is recorded in Matthew, 5:48, is the same as to say, "Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect." When Jesus called us to be the kind of tree that bear good fruit (Matt. 7:17-18) he makes it clear that we have the ability to do good and become morally perfect: "Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the Tree bad and its fruit bad, for the tree is known by its fruit." He notes that we must build treasure in Heaven and in our own hearts, so that "a good man brings good things out of the good stored within him." (Matt. 6:20; 12:35) 

Jesus requires a conformity of mind and life to that rule of action that is founded in the reason of things; and makes or declares that compliance to be the sole ground of divine acceptance, and the only way to life eternal.

And, to prove this proposition, the young man's question, that he put to Jesus, namely, "Good Master, what good thing shall I do that I may have eternal life?" And likewise our Mater's plain and full answer to this important question was, "If you would enter into life, keep the commandments." (Matt. 19:16-17)

So that to be perfect, according to the plain sense and meaning of our Master, Jesus, is to put on such a benevolent disposition, as will dispose and engage us to pursue the good and happiness of our neighbors as well as our own, and so far as we have power and opportunity for doing it; and if the circumstances of things require it, to part with our all, in this world, for their sakes. "If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions an give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me."

 (Adapted from "An Enquiry Into the Ground and Foundation of Religion" by Thomas Chubb)