Do You Want A Good News or Good Advice Religion?

The term gospel literally means good news. Any news worthy of the label good must report events that make life significantly better.

Having led spiritual discussion groups on college campuses for nearly 20 years, I am convinced most people, religious and secular, instinctively misunderstand the essential nature of the Christian gospel. They believe it is primarily about following good advice in order to live righteously before God and man. While the gospel does (secondarily) help us to live well, its foundation is not built upon what we can do for God, but what God has done for us through Jesus Christ. The gospel is history and declares the benefits given to those who stop relying on themselves and instead rely on Jesus.

  1. It is good news morally. Dr. Tim Keller explains, “Jesus lived the life we should live to save us from the life we have lived.” This is really good news when we are honest enough to admit that we don’t live up to our own standards of morality, let alone God’s standards. This news frees us from being tempted to deny our moral failures, or minimize them, in order to feel okay about ourselves. Neither are we paralyzed with shame because Jesus has covered it. In love, Jesus exchanged places with us. On the cross, He absorbed the cost of our moral failings and granted us the benefits of His moral perfection. As the apostle Paul said, “For our sake, [God] made [Jesus], who knew no sin, to be sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
  2. It is good news spiritually. Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). All man-made religion gives good advice on how to barter with God. It offers religious systems and rituals that somehow enable us to pay down our spiritual debt and earn God’s benefits. Such religious traditions assume we each retain a sufficient amount of spiritual capital with which to barter with God. But the Bible describes the human condition as spiritually impoverished and that changes things. Real need removes any confidence a person might otherwise have in him/herself. The poor in spirit recognize that their spiritual bankruptcy makes them unable to bargain with God. They bring nothing to the table. The gospel is good news for those incapable of paying off their debt because Jesus has offered to pay that debt in full.  Even more, Jesus has covered all the expenses for living in His Kingdom. This is really good news for those who accept it. It removes all insecurity. There is no need to barter with God anymore because He is already satisfied.
  3. It is good news physically. When John the baptist sent his disciples to ask if Jesus was the promised Messiah or not; Jesus answered, “Go tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them” (Matthew 11:4-5). Jesus did not simply forgive people their moral failings and make them spiritually rich toward God. He healed bodily diseases and defeated death. His goal was to restore every part of creation that had been broken by the fall. It is nonsense to view Jesus’ power over sickness and death as good advice. But as good news, it changes everything.

The core of human religion is good advice, but the foundation of Christianity is good news. There is a world of difference between the two!

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Increase Your Emotional Intelligence: Read the Bible & Know Jesus

When I graduated high school in 1992, the only intelligence that seemed to matter was IQ (intelligence quotient). Most assumed that a person’s potential was largely indicated by how well they performed academically. Grades and SAT scores were seen as the best predictors of future success.

During the 1990s people increasingly questioned the reliability of IQ to predict success in the academy or the workplace. A new field of study focused on the effects of emotional intelligence, or EQ (emotional quotient). The term first appeared in a 1964 paper by Michael Beldoch but Daniel Goleman popularized emotional intelligence in his 1995 book after studying the work of psychologist John Mayer and Peter Salvoes. For many, EQ provided a missing link that helped explain why “people with the highest levels of intelligence (IQ) outperform those with average IQs just 20 percent of the time, while people with average IQs outperform those with high IQs 70 percent of the time” (Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves, Emotional Intelligence 2.0, p8).

Over the past 20 years, EQ has become as common a term as IQ. You’ll find references to EQ in: workplace training programs, school curriculum, online dating sites, newspaper comic strips, and even advertising for children’s games. Corporations, school systems and religious organizations are developing social and emotional learning programs to increase productivity and create healthy communities.

Technically speaking, emotional intelligence refers to an individual’s ability to process emotional information (in themselves and others) and use it to navigate social relationships. While the term may be new, the core principles are not.

Our heavenly Father has been instructing us on the importance of emotional intelligence from the beginning. Long before the era of standardized tests, the Bible has provided God’s definition of wisdom which has always transcended knowledge or intellectual ability. Proverbs is a treasure trove for those seeking to grow in emotional intelligence. Consider three proverbs that contain timeless truths:

  • “Whoever is slow to anger has great understanding, but he who has a quick temper exalts folly.” (Proverbs 14:29)
  • “Through patience a ruler can be persuaded and a gentle tongue can break a bone.” (Proverbs 25:15)
  • “Without wood a fire goes out; without gossip a quarrel dies down.” (Proverbs 26:20)

An important aspect of emotional intelligence is the ability to identify and distinguish between various emotions and then process through them. When confused or unable to navigate past certain feelings, read the Psalms. There, we meet experienced guides (sages of old with high EQs) who can help us find our way through the pain and darkness.

  • “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me?” Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.” (Psalm 42:5)
  • “My soul refuses to be comforted. When I remember God, I moan; when I meditate my spirit faints. I cannot sleep. I am so troubled I cannot speak…Then my spirit made a diligent search: Will the Lord spurn forever and never again be favorable? Has his steadfast love forever ceased?” (Psalm 77:2b-8)
  • “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts. See if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” (Psalm 139:23-24)

Jesus is by far the best teacher to help us process emotional information (in ourself and others) and then use that information to navigate social relationships. Jesus’ ability to love others as himself made him a master at reading people’s emotional state. Even when people’s behavior masked their hidden attitudes, further conversation would almost always expose what was going on at the heart level. Whatever the issue – pride, self-pity, loneliness, desperation – Jesus’ counsel was always on target. We can learn a lot about emotional intelligence by knowing him.

Consider Jesus’ interactions with two rich men. In Luke 18, Jesus addresses the blinding nature of self-righteousness by challenging a rich young ruler about his self-awareness and moral self-judgement. When the man responds with self-pity rather than repentance Jesus declares “It is harder for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God”. Then in the next chapter Jesus notices another finely dressed rich man who, oddly enough, is perched in a sychamore tree. He wonders about the man who cast his dignity aside and girded his loins to climb a tree. So, Jesus offers him undeserved honor by saying, “Hurry and come down for I must stay at your house today.” In a moment the man is transformed. Without being asked he does what the first rich man could not bring himself to do – give away his wealth and follow Jesus. By comparing Jesus’ interaction with these two rich men, we can see that Jesus had a very high EQ. He knew the difference between a self-righteous man not ready to receive grace and a desperate man starving for it.

We should not be surprised that the Bible was (and continues to be) ahead of its time. If you want to improve you emotional intelligence read it for all its worth.

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Why God? (Living in painful ignorance)

The broken hearted usually cry out for an answer to one question — Why God?

Why God do I have cancer?

Why God did our child die?

Why God do the wicked prosper and the godly suffer?

When God remains silent, where do we turn? If we turn to the Psalms, we learn that God’s people throughout history have shared our confusion. “Why, O LORD, do you reject me and hid your face from me?” (Psalm 88:14) Suffering doesn’t make any sense sometimes. Only God knows the reasons. We hope that, one day, all the pieces will fit together like they did for Joseph (Genesis 37-50). But we have no promises that such insight will be given in this life. As happened with Job, God may never give us an explanation.

How, then, shall we live in our painful ignorance?

  1. Trust God because of Jesus: When we cannot know God’s reason, we can know His character. The unique hope of Christianity is that God has invaded human history and revealed himself to us. We are not left to our vain imaginations. When we see Jesus, we see God. We know God weeps with those who suffer. We see Jesus provide relief and healing. In Jesus, we have proof that God cares and He plans to end all suffering someday. Until then, we see God shares our suffering. Jesus knows pain and loss — personally and extensively. God sympathizes with our suffering, walks with us through it, and promises to never leave us.
  2. Know Your Limitations: Gottfried Leibniz coined the word theodicy meaning literally a justification of God’s ways to human beings. Tim Keller explains, “A theodicy attempts to reveal the reasons and purposes of God for suffering so listeners will be satisfied that his actions regarding evil and suffering are justified…The various theodicies can account for a great deal of human suffering — each theodicy provides some plausible explanations for some of the evil in the world — but they always fall short, in the end, of explaining all suffering. It is very hard to insist that any of them show convincingly how God would be fully justified in permitting all the evil we see in the world.”¹ Alvin Plantinga makes a distinction between theodicies and a defense. He argues that a theodicy sets a very high bar and warns that, according to the book of Job, it seems both futile and inappropriate to assume that any human mind could comprehend the reasons God may have for any instance of suffering. The Bible seems to warn against constructing a “water tight” argument for why God allows what he allows. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth,so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9) As Evelyn Underhill said, “If God were small enough to be understood, he wouldn’t be big enough to be worshipped.” We may never know why God allows certain instances of evil and suffering. But, that does not mean God doesn’t have a good reason which we cannot know.
  3. Embrace the Possibilities: Jesus cried from the cross, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34) It’s understandable that Jesus’ followers, who heard his desperate cry, lost hope. Their hero, beaten beyond recognition and hung up to die, was completely forsaken by God. Most of the disciples fled the scene because they were unable to summon enough courage to watch until the bitter end. But, when the resurrected Jesus appears three days later, he conquers their despair by showing them his pierced hands, feet and side. Why did the resurrected Jesus still carry scars? Those scars proved how the suffering and evil that Jesus endured had been transformed. They served as a sign and seal of complete victory. If God can turn the darkest moment in all of human history (the cross of Jesus Christ) into a victory; can you imagine what possibilities exist for your darkest days. How might God transform your deadly scars into something that ushers in new life?
  4. Imagine God’s Glorious Resolution: The resurrection of Jesus Christ changes everything. It means death will die, sin has been paid for, evil will be defeated, and eternal life is real. It means that heaven is not merely a consolation prize, but a restoration of all that was lost. We receive new bodies in a new cosmos! Paul writes, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God…that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption.” (Romans 8:18,19,21)

While we may never know the exact reason we suffer, we already know what we need to know. So we can endure our painful ignorance with resolved hope.

¹ Timothy Keller, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering (Riverhead books, 2013), pp. 89,95.

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Embrace Imperfect Community

Scholars call Genesis chapter one The Song of Creation. As God creates, He sings for joy. Like an artist who steps back to appreciate his work, God breaks out in poetry and at the end of each stanza (each day) he sings, “It is good!”

From the perspective of Genesis 2, the Song of Creation builds to a crescendo on the sixth day, after God creates Adam in His image; and then suddenly the song screeches to a halt. God yells, “It is not good!” God then, seemingly, walks off stage at the climax of the concert and takes the composer’s sheets with him. He scribbles new notes as the orchestra and audience wonder, “What’s wrong?”

What is so problematic that God interrupts the song of creation?

“It is not good for man to be alone.” God said. (Genesis 2:18) So, He created a friend for Adam, named Eve.

Why did Adam need a human friend so desperately? Adam had God at his side. Was God not enough? Sin had not yet entered the world, so it couldn’t have been that Adam needed support for difficult times.

By including a dramatic pause in The Song of Creation, God was making a dramatic point. He was saying that human friendship is not merely beneficial, but absolutely necessary. If humans are made in God’s image, and God is a community (Father, Son and Holy Spirit); then no one can be fully human outside community.

At creation, Adam and Eve delighted in perfect community — with each other and with God. There was no shame, no fear, no disappointment. There was only beautiful intimacy.

Since the fall, our ability to function in community has been severely damaged. Community works about as well as a smartphone with a cracked screen. It still functions but the image has been distorted. This can cause enough frustration to tempt us to go without. But that would mean losing something that still has value and functionality.

It may be frustrating to live in community but it is unbearable to live outside of it. We tend to lose our humanity when we are separated from others for too long. We may not bother to make the bed, get dressed or use utensils. Like a hermit, we’ll appear more beastly over time.

Unfortunately, living in community usually gets harder during seasons of suffering. Even the most extroverted among us are tempted to pull away from the very people we need. We can anticipate how a certain person (or group of people) will respond. Stepping into community, we become vulnerable and we actually don’t know what someone may say and do! Facing this unknown is exhausting and stressful. It just seems easier to hide away and avoid all potentially uncomfortable situations.

People are a mixed bag of treats — sometimes sweet, sometimes sour. Suffering amplifies that experience. When a friend anticipates our needs without making a fuss; it leaves an unforgettable savor, like grandma’s chicken soup. But when they forget about us (and say something hurtful); it is like food poisoning that turns our insides out. We would do anything to avoid a second incident.

During seasons of suffering, we long for real rest. We want to be understood and encouraged. We need people to weep with us — to share our pain because we can’t bear it alone. We cannot handle all our normal responsibilities and our suffering at the same time. We need help, but we don’t know how to ask for it. Managing help requires more forethought and energy than we can spare. We need people to jump in and simply do what needs to be done, without being asked. Unfortunately they don’t always know what to do. And, the average person relates awkwardly. They don’t know what to say, so they say nothing; or they say something stupid.

The bottom line is during your season of suffering you must offer forgiveness toward people offering imperfect help. Walking this path is not easy, but it is better than the alternative — going down the isolating path of resentment.

Thankfully we have a Savior who showed us the way forward.  He not only suffers with us but he also shows us how to embrace the imperfect help of others.

“Keep watch and pray.” Jesus told his disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane. They tried to help but failed him miserably during his greatest hour of need.

Remember, you are not alone. Everyone must embrace the only type of community available to them — an imperfect one. While it may be tempting to go without it, you simply cannot afford it and maintain your humanity.  The community surrounding you may be damaged but it is still functional. So embrace it. And, who knows, it may pleasantly surprise you!

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A Savior To Rescue Us

Jesus is the best teacher to guide us and truest friend who comforts us. But to make it through life’s hardships we need more. We need a savior to rescue us.

According to popular opinion, God promises not to give us more than we can handle. While Hallmark may promise this, the Bible does not. As strange as it may sound, this should come as a relief to you. First, history and experience vividly illustrate that God does give us more than we can handle. Imagine giving the Hallmark promise to a Jew in Auschwitz, or a parent who just lost their only child, or a person with stage four pancreatic cancer. Who wouldn’t be tempted to punch a person for giving such encouragement? Second, it should relieve you that the Bible is for people clobbered by reality, not just those so sheltered that they naively fall prey to sentimental well wishing. Third, identifying this promise as false will help you more easily recognize the real Jesus. He came to earth precisely because we’ve failed to handle what God has already given us.

So yes, God gives us more than we can handle.

In fact, Jesus seemed intent on putting his disciples in impossible situations to teach the most important lesson — to rely on Him, not themselves.

“Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side. . . [the boat was] beaten by the waves, for the wind was against them and in the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. He meant to pass them by.” (Read the full event in Matthew 14:22-25 and Mark 6: 45-52)

When a dangerous storm hits, where is the last place you want to be? Flailing about the sea in a tiny fishing boat might qualify. Yet, that is exactly where Jesus sent Peter and the disciples after they helped him feed 5,000 hungry people. Why would Jesus send his exhausted friends into a devastating storm? Jesus even lingers on the shore until the last watch of the night before He walks by their sinking boat. Yes, you heard me correctly. Jesus intended to pass them by.

Children’s Bibles gloss over these details. As a child, that’s probably why I confused Mr. Rogers and Jesus. Mr. Rogers would never give us more than we could handle. But the real Jesus is not so tame or predictable.

He seems fine overwhelming us with more than we can handle so that we see our need for Him.

Think about Peter’s experience with Jesus in just one day. After working all day, Jesus asked him to feed five thousand people. With what? Five loaves, and two fish! Really? Then Jesus sent him into an unyielding storm. Peter strained at the oars all night long, unable to bring his boat to safe harbor.

When Peter realized he could not handle his situation, something dawned on him. He cried out to Jesus in desperation and Jesus responded. He enabled Peter to walk on water. But Peter, habitually self-reliant, turned his gaze from Jesus. As Peter sank into the depths, Jesus grabbed him.

Even in Peter’s best moment, he was clearly in over his head.

In a specific situation, we may never completely understand why God gives us more than we can handle. We will feel frustrated and terrified when it happens. But God will use it to replace our self-reliance with a fuller reliance on Him.

Having a teacher and friend are helpful but not sufficient for lasting hope. So many things can go wrong which we cannot fix or even understand. They are simply beyond our comprehension and our abilities.

But they are not beyond God’s wisdom or power. God understands the nature of every poison that ruins, as well as the nature of every antidote that heals. He alone can provide the healing we require.

Most often, antidotes are developed from the same poison that kills. So in order to heal us Jesus Christ consumed every toxin known to bleed humanity of life: betrayal, mockery, loss, cruelty, abandonment, loneliness, sickness, pain, and death. He drank the poison during his life and emptied the bottle at his death. Through consuming the poison he has rescued us and also developed the only elixir capable to heal — his saving blood.

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(This is an edited version of my post from August 2015 titled Does God Give Us More Than We Can Handle?

A True Friend to Comfort Us

Jesus was the truest friend, but not the easiest. He had the ability to speak to people’s hearts with such force and wisdom that they felt exposed, even naked. Yet, despite feeling naked and ashamed, people wanted to be near Jesus because he loved deeply.

Jesus comforted the afflicted, but he also afflicted the comfortable. This explains why the “wrong sort” of people usually loved him: tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners. And the “right sort” usually hated him: religious people and leaders. But not always. Even religious people (and leaders) came to love him; if they could endure the humiliation of being stripped of their self-righteousness (and self-reliance) and see their need of him.

Jesus loved with compassion and wisdom. He loved with an awareness of a person’s individual fears, desires, and personality.

“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died!” Martha cried out in frustration when Lazarus died. (See John 11:17-44)

From other accounts, Martha seems to be a thinker, not a feeler. This would explain why Jesus reasoned with her.

“Your brother will rise again.” Jesus said.

“I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Martha said. But she wanted him back now! She missed him.

“I am the resurrection and the life.” Jesus said. “Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”

“Yes, Lord.” Martha replied.

Martha believed in Jesus’ power over death, but she tended to see Jesus as a means to an end. When Jesus said, “everyone who believes in me shall never [really] die” he wanted Martha to change her perspective. Heaven would be heavenly not because it extended life forever, but because it reconnected people to life’s source — to Him. Until Martha was ready to see Jesus was the end, not merely a means to an end, she would never experience life to the fullest; even if she had her brother back from the dead that day (which she would).

Mary, Martha’s sister, approached Jesus saying the same thing, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died!” But Mary’s grieving process was different. Unlike her sister, Mary was a feeler, not a thinker. Jesus knew the way to comfort her was not with reason but with tears. So, Jesus took the time to weep with Mary; even though he was about to raise Lazarus.

He loved each sister perfectly. He gave each exactly what she needed to feel loved and understood. We might assume that the really important thing was to physically restore their brother to them. But for Jesus, it was just as important to restore each sister emotionally and spiritually.

Jesus is the truest friend who knows how to comfort us in our pain. We can trust him to break through to us in exactly the way we need him. Unlike Mary and Martha, we may have to wait longer than several days to see God’s full power. But even if we have to wait until the final resurrection, we have a true friend to comfort us now.

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