“Religion in our time has been captured by the tourist mindset…, a visit to an attractive site to be made when we have adequate leisure. For some it is a weekly jaunt to church; for others, occasional visits to special services. Some, with a bent for religious entertainment and sacred diversion, plan their lives around special events like retreats, rallies, and conferences. We go to see a new personality, to hear a new truth, to get a new experience and so somehow expand our otherwise humdrum lives. The religious life is defined as the newest and the latest: Zen, faith healing, human potential, parapsychology, successful living, choreography in the chancel, Armageddon. We’ll try anything — until something else comes along.”

 

(Eugene H. Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, p 16, 2000)

 

The Tourist Mindset of Today’s Religion

“The idea of cultivation and exercise, so dear to the saints of old, has now no place in our total religious picture. It is too slow, too common. We now demand glamour and fast flowing dramatic action. A generation of Christians reared among push buttons and automatic machines is impatient of slower and less direct methods of reaching their goals. We have been trying to apply machine-age methods to our relations with God. We read our chapter, have our short devotions and rush away, hoping to make up for our deep inward bankruptcy by attending another gospel meeting or listening to another thrilling story told by a religious adventurer lately returned from afar.”

 

(A. W. Tozer, The Pursuit of God, p 69, 1982 – Tozer Legacy Edition; original pub date, 1948)

Cultivating Faith vs Instant Faith

Reflecting on the Fall Season

I’m enjoying a much needed hiatus after a rigorous fall semester at Talbot School of Theology. The workload caught me by surprise even though I had been in graduate school twelve years ago. I thought that I’d take to the classroom like a duck to water. In one sense, I soared higher than I thought possible; however, in another sense, I found myself struggling to organize my time into a schedule that suited me. The demands of the private sector are quite different. I knew my schedule and adjusted things accordingly. In the academic environment, the class time is known, but not the hours needed to complete the work. It is this aspect that flayed me in the first half of the fall semester.

The more I connected with my peers, the more I realized that I was not alone in my struggle to create a schedule and stick to it. Of course, the upcoming spring semester only gets tougher. I feel like I’m in the early stages of a role-playing game in dire need of experience points. One big plus has been settling into a local church earlier this summer, which was a season of transition. In the month of August alone, I left my Hollywood job, started seminary, and began exploring several churches in the Pasadena area where my wife and I call home. Back in March, my wife and I sought the Lord together about this year and decided that he was leading us to set down roots in Pasadena.

When August rolled around, it was comforting to know that seminary, church, and life in general began to settle down ever so slightly. For me, the local church piece was significant because I wanted to find a solid place for my wife and future family. We really resonated with the blend of the Word and the Spirit at Sovereign Grace Church in Pasadena. The elders stand for God and his word with humility and conviction. Personally, this was a big one for me, especially since I’m responding to God’s call on my life. Sadly, we visited many churches where the leaders either equivocated on controversial topics, or downplayed the importance of Baptism.

After listening to a couple of Sovereign Grace podcasts, and reading over their statement of faith, I knew that the leaders had a solid grounding in God’s word. Their embrace of the spiritual gifts wound up being another plus. Interestingly enough,what sold us on Sovereign Grace Church of Pasadena had to do with the maturity of the people and the leaders. It just seemed like these folks knew what it meant to walk with the Lord in all of life’s circumstances. They practiced what they preached. Is this our church for the next decade? I don’t know. It definitely seems like the place to be throughout my seminary education. The way I see it, one step at a time.

Given the intensity of the previous semester, it refreshed me quite a bit to have a solid home church. My wife and I have a place from which to draw strength and to give back. Like I alluded to earlier, the next semester only increases in difficulty. I’m taking slightly more units, the content level goes up, and I have a child on the way. The temptation for me is to power my way through seminary. In fact, I even began the previous semester with that mindset. It did not take long for the Lord’s discipline to exert its effect. His target was the pride in my heart. It remains a central focus of his, but there is grace and mercy, too. I have needed the Lord to remind me of the importance of acknowledging the good that he has done in and through me.

“Almighty God, just because He is almighty, needs no support. The picture of a nervous, ingratiating God fawning over men to win their favor is not a pleasant one; yet if we look at the popular conception of God, that is precisely what we see. Twentieth Century Christianity has put God on charity. So lofty is our opinion of ourselves that we find it quite easy, not to say enjoyable, to believe that we are necessary to God. But the truth is that God is not greater for our being, nor would He be less if we did not exist. That we do exist is altogether of God’s free determination, not by our desert nor by divine necessity.”

 

(A. W. Tozer, Knowledge of the Holy, 1961)

The Self-Sufficient God

Flawed in Deep Ways

Back in September, I wrote an entry on my blog after a period of silence. This particular post comes after losing myself inside of a black hole. I am not engaging in any social media fast or the like. Instead I have been buried underneath the rigors of seminary education. Greek is not easy, but neither is Hermeneutics. When you mix together these classes, it becomes quite clear that ministerial training transcends the academic aspect. There is a larger issue at stake: faithfulness to God.

With each passing day, I sense the gravity of the call. For example, the following text in James 3:1 speaks volumes: “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (ESV). If this is not plain speaking, then I do not know what plain speaking is or looks like. When I think about how Moses hesitated with becoming Israel’s leader, or how Gideon resisted the Lord’s call, I find myself in good company. I sympathize with Jonah, who boarded a ship for Tarshish rather than bring God’s message to Nineveh.

Now, the responses of Moses, Gideon, and Jonah raise some interesting points. All three men refuse to pretend before the Lord. It is true that Jonah’s response is flagrantly disobedient; however, he is honest about it. This leads to to the next point. Moses, Gideon, and Jonah have a deep enough relationship with the Lord, which allows them to be honest. These men do not hide their reluctance to respond to the Lord’s call. At the risk of pressing this point too far, it seems to me that expressing reluctance to God’s call is a good sign. The last time I checked, I didn’t see myriads of people clamoring together in order to be one of the Chief Shepherd’s under-shepherds (1 Peter 5:1-5, ESV).

One last point to make is that Moses, Gideon, and Jonah were far from perfect in their obedience. Moses failed to enter the Promised Land because he let his temper get the best of him. Gideon made an ephod, which ensnared the people of Israel and his family in idolatry. Lastly, Jonah wallowed in anger toward the Lord for his deliverance of the Ninevites. All three men were flawed in deep ways, yet the Lord of heaven and earth used them to accomplish his redemptive purposes and plans. I need to remember that the Lord has not called me to perform perfectly, but to obey him. This includes owning up to any wrong words and actions.

What astonishes me even more is that the Lord knows all about my imperfections. He is aware of the ways that I can and will fail him. Still, his invitation to join him remains constant and sure. The Lord delights in using me, but I have my doubts. He is the one who encourages me in the midst of my unbelief. When I am weak, he is strong. When I can’t or won’t pray, His Spirit groans with words too deep to express. He lights my way in the dark. The Lord deserves all of the credit. Will Judgment Day be joyous? I’m sure it will, but there are no easy outs. On that day, I will face the music for how I have shepherded the Lord’s people.

People and Their Idols

The likelihood of a Westerner knowing someone who makes idols of religious worship for a living is pretty slim. I contend that it is even rarer to have acquaintances, friends, or relatives who make religious idols for use in their home. This was widespread during the days of the Old Testament (OT) and in the New Testament (NT). Due to space limitations, I will focus only on the OT. There are many OT prophecies and/or oracles of judgment pronounced against the idolatry of the nations and God’s OT people, the nation of Israel. Reading any of the four, major prophetic books, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel, will bear this out. In fact, reading just one of those books is more than enough to realize that idol worship and idol-making are abominations before the Lord of heaven and earth.

For example, here is a chilling passage from the book of Isaiah:

“All who make idols are nothing, and the things they treasure are worthless. Those who would speak up for them are blind; they are ignorant, to their own shame. Who shapes a god and casts an idol, which can profit nothing? People who do that will be put to shame; such craftsmen are only human beings. Let them all come together and take their stand; they will be brought down to terror and shame.” (Isaiah 44:9-11, NIV)

Now, the prophet Isaiah wrote these words sometime during the last decades of the 8th Century BC. Some OT scholars believe that the prophet’s ministry overlapped with the start of the 7th Century BC. The point being that Isaiah lived and ministered for several decades. During his ministry, he prophesied that the Assyrians would conquer the Northern Kingdom of Israel. He saw this take place with his own eyes in 722 BC. Why is this significant? Portions of Isaiah’s prophecies in the seventh and eighth chapters of his book place the certainty of the Northern Kingdom’s demise precisely because of their idol worship and idol-making. The leaders and the people dismissed the prophet’s warnings about their impending doom. Their destruction exemplified the truth of the eleventh verse in the above quoted text: “People who do that will be put to shame…they will be brought down to terror and shame” (Isa. 44:11, NIV).

Did the Southern tribes of Israel pay attention to what happened to their northern brothers and sisters? The answer is no. Isaiah directs most of his prophecies against the people of Judah, which comprised of two tribes: Judah and Benjamin (see 1 Kings 10:29-36; 2 Chronicles 11:5-12, ESV). They also were called the Southern Kingdom of Israel. Now, common sense would seem to dictate that the people of Judah would learn from the disaster that befell their brothers and sisters to the north. Isn’t it better to learn from others’ mistakes? The Southern Kingdom knew all about the spiritual idolatry of their northern brothers and sisters. The people of Judah heard the prophet Isaiah himself speak the words that he recorded for them, which the Lord preserved for us in Isaiah 44:9-11. These words are neither hypothetical nor cryptic. The passage is crystal clear about what happens to those cities and peoples who worship and make idols. 

The Southern Kingdom loved their idols so much that they rejected the prophet Isaiah’s warnings much like their brothers and sisters to the north. Tradition has it that Isaiah suffered martyrdom during the reign of King Manasseh, who ordered the prophet’s execution. Many bible scholars believe that the reference in Hebrews 11:37 to those being sawn in two refers to Isaiah’s manner of death. Manasseh’s reign represented the nadir and the soon coming end of the Southern Kingdom (2 Kings 21:1-9, ESV). In the OT book of second Kings, the Lord prophesies judgment upon Judah and Jerusalem because of Manasseh’s sins and his peoples’ sins, which included idol worship, witchcraft, child sacrifice, and shedding innocent blood; consequently, there was no way for them to avert the coming disaster (2 Kings 21:10-15; 24:2-4, ESV). In 586 BC, the Babylonians overthrew the Southern Kingdom. 

One terrible truth comes to the forefront at this point. No civilization wants to be told to give up its idols and idol-making. Manasseh’s bloodthirsty reign epitomizes this, which also overshadows the fact that he genuinely repented and reversed from his murderous ways near the end of his life (2 Chron. 33:12-16, ESV). Sometimes one is able to turn back from the deep darkness of idolatry and idol-making like Manasseh. There are other times when this is not the case. In fact, Isaiah spells this out near the end of the forty-fourth chapter:

“They know nothing, they understand nothing; their eyes are plastered over so they cannot see, and their minds closed so they cannot understand. No one stops to think…Such a person feeds on ashes; a deluded heart misleads him; he cannot save himself, or say, ‘Is not this thing in my right hand a lie?'” (Isa. 44:18-20, NIV)

Those are powerful words that hit home even today. Like I said at the very beginning, most Americans do not have physical idols. What we do have are spiritual ones, which dwell within our souls. These idols may be rising to the top at all costs, pursuing pleasure for its own sake regardless of the consequences, and seeking spirituality without the Lord. There is another idol that is more insidious and much more ancient than those three. I call it the idol of the autonomous self. It lead to the fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden. This idol is all about pursuing the right to live my life in whatever way I want free its creator, the Lord. I am the sole arbiter of what is valuable to me. Nearly every magazine, commercial, television show, movie, or news item trumpets the idol of the autonomous self. Social media only has made things worse. May we heed Isaiah’s warning about the ultimate end of those civilizations who worship and fashion idols.