We wonder about how people in this world can inflict such pain on others. We wonder about how evil can exist in this world. Think of the most evil person in the world. We point out the evil and call it out and name it. It’s especially horrifying when evil is done to us.
Truth is, we also do harm against our friends, family, neighbors and co-workers. The harm done is just more apparent when it’s others doing it to us.
This sickness called ‘original sin’ begins as microscopic viruses–invisible. We don’t know we have it we’ve been infected. Eventually shows up. When others point out our wart or zit, we are embarrassed. When it comes out, it’s rather ugly. We try to cover it up. We might even go as far as turning our face the other way, wearing a ball cap or shades. Anything to hide the unsightly zit.
Sin is like this too. When it comes out, it’s unsightly. It shows in how we mistreat other people. We don’t even know why it happens, but it happens. The Apostle Paul said in Romans 7:15, “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”
This spiritual sickness in the human race leaves no one untouched. It describes who we are, not only as human beings, but also as redeemed Christian people. It explains why we as Christians still sin. There is no sin we are incapable of committing as human beings. Some call it total depravity. We cannot escape its grip and only Jesus can release us from it.
Jesus, thank you for forgiving me of my sins. Release us from this grip. Help me forgive people in this world who have hurt me. Give me strength to bless them because I cannot do it on my own. I’m incapable of forgiveness but with your help, I can. I want to walk in your paths of righteousness, holiness, and experience your peace, joy and love. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
As people, we want to believe that humans are innately good and born pure. We prefer to imagine ourselves far away from the sins that only the worst of sinners commit. The more heinous the sin, the more we distance ourselves from these sins.
We do this all the time. Ever catch yourself outspokenly critical of bad people? You know, those ‘others’ who commit the big crimes. It’s almost like we intentionally and publicly display our hatred of sin in order to prove to others (and even to ourselves) that we are unlike those ‘bad sinners.’
Making contrast-comparisons doesn’t makes us any less of a sinner, nor any better of a Christian. Sometimes, we fall into a mode of being critical of others, and at other times, being judgmental. We hide our self-righteousness behind a veneer of righteousness.
Jesus told a story or parable about a pharisee and a publican:
9 Jesus told this parable to certain people who had convinced themselves that they were righteous and who looked on everyone else with disgust: 10 “Two people went up to the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood and prayed about himself with these words, ‘God, I thank you that I’m not like everyone else—crooks, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week. I give a tenth of everything I receive.’ 13 But the tax collector stood at a distance. He wouldn’t even lift his eyes to look toward heaven. Rather, he struck his chest and said, ‘God, show mercy to me, a sinner.’ 14 I tell you, this person went down to his home justified rather than the Pharisee. All who lift themselves up will be brought low, and those who make themselves low will be lifted up.”
Gospel of Luke, chapter 18, verses 9-14, Holy Bible (Common English Bible)
Each person, has been impacted by a sickness at birth. This sickness has impacted even our ability to make decisions. The only way out is to depend on God’s grace and mercy.
By placing ourselves in a lower position, we can see ourselves for who we really are–as both a saint and a sinner at the same time. As Christians we are simultaneously redeemed and yet still sinful. Until that final day when the Lord Jesus returns to earth, we will become fully redeemed. In the mean time, we are still bound by original sin.
The cure: God has provided us a cure from this infection of original sin through a spiritual rebirth and renewal in the Holy Spirit. This is made possible only through faith or believing in Jesus who died on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins. By believing this (through faith alone) we are made holy (or sanctified) and righteous through the washing of God’s word as we repent each day. Though I am weak, it is God who strengthens me each day.
In the past five to ten years, we’ve seen some explosions in the church world across many denominations: from Evangelical, Protestant to Catholic. For many it was a shock and a let down, especially for those who followed the teachings of these religious/spiritual leaders.
A recent evangelical, Ravi Zacharias, was a well-known Christian apologist. Other ministers in the past were Mark Driscoll, CJ Mahaney, Jim Baker, Jimmy Swaggart. There are hundreds of pastors and priests who have faced allegations of misconduct of some sort. All these Christian men have had great ministries and have led many people into a deeper understanding of faith and knowledge of Christ.
It is easy to label them as fake, but doing so does not make sense. They got into ministry for all the right reasons. Their calling of God was very real—as real as anyone else’s. Their faith and ministry are real and it would not be fair to dismiss their prior ministry accomplishments.
What is also real is their struggle with sex, money, power. Some might even struggle with all three. This struggle is common to all persons in vocational ministry and people in all stations in life–regardless of spiritual calling.
The temptation that ministers and common people have is to hold up our religious leaders as spotless examples of “good Christians.” It is an impossible expectation to fulfill one-hundred percent.
Actually, the higher a spiritual standing one has in the church, the greater the expectation one has to be that “spotless Christian example.” This is especially true in evangelical and Catholic traditions that follow 1 Tim. 3:2 and 5:8. It’s a bizarre expectation of anyone because we have not truly understood the gospel. The gospel is about forgiveness of sins–not about moral perfection, but yet, we make it about moral perfection. The only expectation we can actually fulfill is to fall upon the grace of God and plead for his daily mercies.
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.
Psalm 22:1-2, Bible
This psalm from chapter 22 is often read on Good Friday. Christians have associated this text to the suffering and crucifixion of Jesus on the cross. Jesus quoted this in part while on hung on the cross to die.
The Book of Psalm contains many complaints. For this reason, it wasn’t one of my favorite books of the bible. There are many joyful psalms of praise and celebration which I prefer; and then there are many sad and depressing psalms of lament, which I dislike (especially if I’m not in the mood to read it).
The good bishop, N.T. Wright, recently wrote in Time:
“Yes, these poems often come out into the light by the end, with a fresh sense of God’s presence and hope, not to explain the trouble but to provide reassurance within it.”…. “It is no part of the Christian vocation, then, to be able to explain what’s happening and why. In fact, it is part of the Christian vocation not to be able to explain—and to lament instead. As the Spirit laments within us, so we become, even in our self-isolation, small shrines where the presence and healing love of God can dwell.”
When the psalmist could not see any relief in sight, all he had was pain. He doubted God. If you haven’t read from the bible of the numerous chapters of people feeling sorry for themselves, open up to the book of Psalm. It’s full of it. This is why so many people can relate to the psalms. These writers complained about their pain and they accused God of forgetting and for not caring. Job’s friends came up with invalid reasons for his extreme sufferings (read about it in depressing book of Job). They blamed his sufferings on his past sins. How inconsiderate. If I had friends like Job, I’d tell them where to go.
If one were to contract COVID-19 (or any other sickness for that matter), we might want a spiritual explanation as to why we contracted the disease. There is no good “spiritual” reason why a person contracted COVID-19 or any other disease. No, I’m not talking about a clinical reason, but rather, a spiritual reason. Spiritualizing it doesn’t improve a person’s emotional agony or discomfort. It doesn’t do a person any good.
God wants us to put ourselves in a proper place and be subordinate to the will of God. That is to humble ourselves. It gives room for God to come into our lives and give us peace–a true peace that is beyond all human understanding.
This is the same realization Jesus might have had on the cross as he suffered in pain. He experienced the love and peace of the Holy Spirit while he writhed in pain at Golgotha. I know. Sounds wierd and ironic that peace and pain can go together. Peace and pain can co-exist. This is the irony that so many people find so difficult to understand.
As Christians, and as non-religious folks, we all want answers to our problems, and we want them now. Our natural human desire is to alleviate our pain. We hate pain. We want it to disappear.
One direction people take is to doubt the existence of God. When we witness or hear of so much pain in the world, we begin to rationalize: “How can there be such a cruel God? Who would allow human beings to be put into cruel and painful circumstances? Such an inhumane or merciless God simply cannot exist!”
Another way our mind can wander is to wrongly attribute cruelty toward a loving and merciful God. We begin to doubt God’s goodness, and that God is truly good. We lose faith in a good God. We walk away from the Church. Emotionally and intellectually, it easier to doubt that a loving God can allow injustice and suffering. As a result, we push God out of our lives.
Another way our minds will rationalize a seemingly irrantional God of peace and pain is to find reasons why we might be deserving of pain and suffering.
“I have done something very bad and sinful, so now it’s payback time… God is getting even with me now and that’s why I’m suffering.”
“I hurt that rotten person years ago, and that’s why God took away my son or daughter, my father or mother.”
“I’m such an evil person. That’s why God gave me cancer,” or “That’s why God sent the Coronavirus… to wipe out this evil world of evil doers.”
When we demand answers for which there isn’t an answer it’s a vain attempt to spiritualize our pain away. Our human capacity to accept uncertainty is limited, so we prefer to limit God by putting Him in a box. We relentlessly search for a rational answer. We set limits on ourselves as humans beings, and we end up pushing God further away.
Why do we do this? We want to put God where it makes more sense to us. We want to set God in his place. We prefer to think, “that if there truly is a God, then this is who God is. This is what God is like; and so this is how I can be stronger.”
We prefer to own our own problems. By setting God in a place where we want him to be, we think we can garner more control over our lives. We come up with our own solutions to our own problems.
Our goal for a human solution is empty and vain. It is not where God is found. God likely has a totally different solution. God’s knowledge is infinite and All-knowing. If we really knew the mind of God, what God already knows might actually surprise us.
It is not our job to rationalize God. God does not want to be included in our human equation. In God’s mind, there is no such thing as a human equation. Our job is not to put God where we think He ought to be. That is to falsify God and take God’s name in vain.
Our place is to be subordinate to God and become willing vessels of God’s will. When God has His rightful place in your life, it is then that you will have peace. When God feels welcomed in your life, it is then that you will have joy and hope.
What God wants more than anything is to wrap his big arms around you and tell you that He loves you. He desires to be with you. His presence surrounds you and protects you like a mother hen who guards her chicks. The love and mercy of God is greater than what we can imagine.
God wants to come to you in the midst of all your suffering… even in the midst of your chaos, your pain, sadness, sickness and disease. The capacity of the love of God is much greater than our human capacity. God’s love is deeper, wider, and higher.
Our own human capacity to love is extremely limited. We do not have the patience, the courage or the kindness to love like God can. That’s why we prefer to push aside a God who allows suffering. But God is much bigger than our vain human imaginations.
If God the Father absorbed all the pain that Jesus suffered on the cross, God can certainly live in us with all our pain and suffering. How so? God is God, and we are not. God can come into your life, filled with pain and chaos, filled with burdens that you cannot bear, and then fill it with God’s own peace.
Millions of Christians in the world today have experienced the overwhelming love and mercy of God. Christians in the world today currently suffering are experiencing God in the midst of their sickness and pain, in their wars and violence, in their persecutions and personal troubles. Millions more will enter into the Compassionate heart of this Triune God. He is calling out to each individual person, and that person might be you today.
I admit, the idea of a suffering God is not popular in Christian circles. The suffering Christ was once nailed to the cross. The crucified Christ was nailed on Friday. Well, we call it Friday but we really don’t know what day it was. We also like to call it “Good Friday”. It was not a good thing that happened but we call it “good” anyway. Behind this, there is an extremely important truth. It is a “Good Friday” because we already know there is hope coming on the third day. Jesus would soon rise again from the dead. We know the ultimate outcome is renewed life–a resurrection from the dead.
When we invite guests to come over to our house, we want to make sure we have it cleaned up, spotless and all tidy. We do this not for their sake, but we do it for our own sake. We take pride in our own perfection.
In God’s economy, God is not like this at all. God’s way is like this. As we welcome God to enter our lives and live within our pain and suffering, the Holy Spirit will fill us with peace, joy and hope. This is why we can invite God to come into our hearts and homes while we are still a mess. Yes, from our human point-of-view, this sounds unconventional and very different to what we think ought to be normal.
The good news of Christ is not that God came to wave a magic wand to banish away all our pain and problems. The good news of Christ Jesus is that God vanished from the empty tomb and resurrected in bodily form on the Third Day, and rose to live again in the flesh. He conquered and defeated death. If death could not hold Jesus in the tomb, then death will not be able to hold us down in the grave. This is why we celebrate Easter this Sunday.
Death is one of the biggest fears of humankind. If God in Christ Jesus defeated death on Easter, we also have hope of eternal life with God forever. May all praise, honor and glory be to God our Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
As a kid in the schoolyard, I remember making promises to do something, or making an oath to reinforce what I said was absolutely true. One went like this:
“Cross my heart, and hope to die, stick a needle in my eye.” And if we got away with crossing our finger hidden behind our backs, our promise didn’t count as a real oath.
Somehow, these silly antics were supposed to reinforce the truth. As we get older and grow out of our elementary ways and methods of making what we say sound more believable, we’ve changed things up a little: “To be totally honest with you…” Well, as if what we just said was going to be more truthful than usual.
I just ran into a very strange saying in the Old Testament Bible. This one has always stumped me and caused me to ponder upon its meaning and how it originated. It seems that an oath made under a man’s scrotum was somehow more binding.
“So the servant put his hand under the thigh of his master Abraham and swore an oath to him concerning this matter.” (Genesis 24:9)
Really stumps me. Hard to imagine its significance. Anyone get the meaning of this one or how it originated?!
Where is God? As Christians, we believe just because we know or we assume something to be true. There are some who won’t believe until they see God and heaven. Downside of this is that they may never get to see until they pass from this life. By then, will it be too late for an “I told you so.” Hence, we look for God’s presence, God’s reality, and indicators of God’s existence in our world. Jesus also used words like “My father’s kingdom.”
In Luke 17:21, Jesus taught that God’s kingdom is neither here nor there. His followers, including some of his disciples, had thought that his coming kingdom was going to be a secular government on earth. Jesus was actually referring to a spiritual kingdom.
As creatures of this physical world, we prefer to speak of God’s kingdom as a country or nation. God’s kingdom has no physical location. It is everywhere, yet it is nowhere to be located. It is neither ethereal nor out-of-this-world. Jesus said, “God’s kingdom is here with you.” It cannot be seen but yet it is with us. We might try to emulate God’s kingdom on earth, but it can never be an earthly kingdom. God’s spiritual kingdom might be within an earthly kingdom, but we can never put an earthly kingdom into a spiritual kingdom.
So where is God’s kingdom on earth? It is current. It’s happening in the here and now.
It might be found within the life of a real king or queen, or it might now.
It might be found working in the life of church organization, or it might not be.
It might be found working in offices of a corporation, and it might not be found working in a church office.
It might be found working where people are praying on an old warship in the middle of the South Pacific, and it might not be found in normal-looking but dysfunctional family.
It might be found working in compassionate hearts volunteering in a street ministry, or it might not be.
It might be found in the life of a single mother raising two children in the ghetto, or it might not be.
God’s kingdom can be understood as God’s purpose or God’s will happening in this world. God’s purpose or will can be happening in your own lives. It can be within our society and culture. It can be within your place of habitation, within my yown community, and yes, even in my secular place of work. It is working and functioning within God’s people and where God’s people are glorifying God and doing God’s will. When God’s will is done, as it is in heaven, then we can say that his reign or kingdom is coming.
One might ask several questions:
Do I sense God’s kingdom and God’s will being done in my life or family, in my community, in my church?
Are people seeing God working in their lives?
Does what I do glorify God? Is what I do glorifying to God?
If it is a “Yes”, then God’s kingdom might be in your midst. If you can say positively that God is working in places where you are present, then God’s kingdom might very well be present. God’s kingdom is present where you are in-line with God’s will, and actively doing his will.
In the end, it will always come back to the question of faith. If you can honestly affirm the above question with an affirmative “Yes”, it takes faith to believe the unseen.
Conservative evangelical Christians, myself included, at an earlier time in my life, was taught that sanctification, or to be made holy, was something we can partially achieve ourselves by living holy and righteous lives each day of the week.
Well, perhaps it wasn’t taught directly, but we were taught to presume and assume this was at least partially true. The occasional right teaching on grace sort of kept the above false assumption in check. Thank God we didn’t completely go off the rails.
A discomforting imbalance hung in the air every Sunday when I walked into church. I wondered if being a Christian was mainly about following rules, or was it mainly about trusting in God’s grace? Both these ideas were taught–even simultaneously in the same sermon. On some Sundays, I heard more of one than the other–usually about living as a “good Christian.”
Grace is for either seriously back-slidden Christians or for brand new born-again Christians who need Jesus. The bit about following rules was for the rest of us Christians who weren’t in either of these two camps.
I don’t know if that sounds like something you experienced in your church experience.
For many, such laws are a part of one’s piety and spirituality:
Don’t take the Lord’s name in vain.
Don’t swear or curse.
Sound familiar? Nothing wrong with these laws. They’re in the bible and I believe we ought to memorize all Ten Commandments. They ought to be rigorously taught in Sunday schools and catechism.
We took the commandments in the bible very seriously. This is a good thing…. however, there can also be a missing link somewhere in our teachings.
If not properly taught, we can easily misunderstand sanctification as moral living or living as a “good Christian.” In other words, sanctification becomes all about changing our own external behavioral so we can be “good Christians”. Then, and only then, are we fully “worthy of Christ’s calling.”
If I didn’t live right one day or one week, I would feel guilty. Guilt sucked!
I would have to go up for the next altar call after a firey sermon, otherwise, my eternal destiny would be at risk.
Western Christianity’s doctrine on grace tells us we are free from the law. On the other hand, Confucianism reinforced the law. This is where it gets complicated in East Asian churches.
Christians like myself who have been raised in East Asian churches (e.g., Chinese or Korean churches) become geared to follow the law in order to prove we have been sanctified. If you were raised in an East Asian church, you might likely know what I’m talking about.
I never thought of myself as potential material for college fellowship leader. I knew what they were looking for though. Someone near perfection. Some mistakes were allowed but not big ones.
Proving to the leaders and elders in the church that “I’m a good Christian” can become a pre-occupation. So much so that it becomes one’s cross to bear. To be considered potential material for future Sunday school teacher, or future youth group/fellowship leader depended on the right image one had to project to the deacons/elders/leaders.
I admit I was a college fellowship leader during my undergraduate days in university in Ottawa, Ontario. I don’t know what they saw in me, or rather, what they did not see in me. They probably didn’t see all the dark thoughts I had during the days I was not in church.
I can attest that when deacons were around, it felt like I was walking on eggshells. My status as a spiritual leader would go up if I did not commit blunders. It would depend on how my moral performance was that week.
If there were any misbehaviors and others witnessed it, it would not look good to the deacons. We were spiritually accountable to the fellowship deacon. If there was sin or sinful thoughts running through my head that week, well, then it was time for another confession or altar call to accept the Lord’s forgiveness.
This is the general feeling of many Christians–young and old. If one could not prove their worthiness in Christ, he or she’d better straighten up, or leave the church or risk getting kicked-out of church. It would depend on the degree of sin. Minor infractions, medium, big, and seriously BIG sins that required deacon and pastoral intervention.
If you knew you couldn’t straighten up, then you’d rather voluntarily leave yourself than have the elder or pastor threaten your moral and social standing in the church. To make your immorality public would be a huge shame in the Chinese church.
You wouldn’t want the church aunties and uncles talking about you. They might never stop talking about you, or you’d never have your name and reputation cleared for years. You’d almost be better off to disappear from church for years and hope they have amnesia.
By the time teenagers and youths became indepenent young adults, they had options. Without Mom or Dad around, they started making their own decisions about attending or not attending church.
Some thought their best option was to leave church. Some left. Leaving seemed like a viable option when you feel like a hopeless sinner and a moral loser. For those of us who stayed in church, we saw those who left church as either smart or as losers.
If we admitted to ourselves how tough it was to live the good Christian life, we thought leavers were smart. If we did not admit this to ourselves, we thought leavers were losers.
Now looking back, that really was a pathetic line of thought. The theological and spiritual ramification of that was stark. You’re either a good Christian or you weren’t. Not much middle ground. Middle ground was for luke-warm Christians.
Now that I’m older and wiser, I realized that this kind of thinking is actually the basis of works-righteous. It sure seemed like a legitimate biblical teaching when it was nicely couched within the teachings on a graceful and loving God.
God’s grace was often held secondary to the necessity of following rules. Rules were for the seasoned Christians. As seasoned Christians, we got good at acting like “good Christians.” The key word here is “acting”. Many in the church were good actors. If we were in the core of close-knit friendships, we saw the weaknesses. You know… the occasional cursing and evil thoughts that crossed our mind.
Being seasoned in “the faith”, we knew what to show and what to hide. What we could not hide, we had to blame others or accuse others of their failures to put ourselves in better light. Looking back now, I’d say that was rather hideous. For some of us who have not grown out of this game, I still see them acting, blaming or accusing. They still want to be the seasoned players in the game of Church-ianity.
Baptism. If we were committed and baptized Christians, then we were really committed to following Christ. To follow Christ meant to jump through all the religious hoops, cross all the T’s and dot the I’s. If we lasted long enough in the religious game, we could teach Sunday school, or even make deacon or elder one day.
It might depend on who’s around. It’s like a draft pick. You have first round draft picks, then second round, third, and so on. The more T’s you cross and I’s you dot, the better your chances of getting picked for deacon or elder, Sunday school teacher.
Confusion in Confucianized Christianity
Looking back now, I have realized that the downside to many of our East Asian churches. Our ethnic culture is wrought with the philosophical baggage of Confucianism. I’m not saying that Confucianism is a bad thing, but I won’t say that it’s totally a good thing either. It’s a philosophy.
Confucianism was meant to be a philosophy and not a religion. Like Marxism or free-market enterprise philosophies, Confucianism is another philosophy for living and for society. Thus, it was okay to hold onto Confucianism and still be a bonafide Christian.
In China and East Asia, Confucianism worked to a certain extent. It did create an orderly society. But when you mix Confucianism with Christianity, you get a hybrid of some sort. When you mix Confucianism with works-righteousness together, what do you get? Confucianized Christianity. Yes, sounds rather confusing.
I have recognized this breed or hybridized form was a different type of Christianity. I’m not sure if you can call it pure Christianity, but the Christianity was still there. One just has to wade through all the weeds to see it.
When you consider the two, they seem to fit nicely together, like hand-in-glove. Both types of philosophies are very much based on following rules.
When a Chinese or Korean person newly converts to Christianity, it almost seems like a nice fit. There isn’t a whole lot to change. The only difference is the theology, but the requirement to follow rules flows seamlessly into the new religion. The necessity to follow a set of rules is merely a continuation into one’s new religion. Instead of the teachings of Buddha or Confucius, you’ve got the new teachings of Jesus.
Grace, however, comes into play when you accept Jesus for the first time. Grace and forgiveness come as the initial terms of salvation. After you’re saved, more rules will follow. The works-righteousness type of Christianity becomes a life of following laws, rules and regulations.
I grew up in an Asian family. Mom and Dad were traditional. We were taught to respect our elders. Disrespecting elders was a sin. Shame on the family name was also a sin. We were to work hard. Make good grades in school and do our part to contribute to better society. That made us a good human being. To fail was to not know how to be a good human.
The Apostle Paul is the bearer of the light of Christ. He saw the light on the road to Damascus. He also saw how circumcision seriously messed up the pure approach to trusting in Jesus for righteousness. I wonder what Paul would have to say about Confucius. I also wonder what Confucius would have to say about Paul’s understanding of works-righteousness.
I didn’t realize how Confucian-based cultures can easily twist Paul’s teachings of grace into one of good works. Chinese Christian churches tend to view grace through Confucianist lenses. We do it so naturally and so easily that we are not even aware of it ourselves. This is why Chinese churches still struggle with “grace through faith.”
I didn’t realize this spiritual blindness until I got into seminary and began studying Lutheran theology. I studied theology to enter into Church ministry to serve as a pastor.
About fifteen years later after undergrad studies, I would begin to sense God’s calling in my life. Through prayer and a sense of God’s leading, I eventually enrolled into a small seminary. It was here that I first learned about the theology of grace. Perhaps more on this will come in a future post.
Anyway, second-generation Christians, like myself, who are locally born here (i.e., American-born Chinese or Chinese-born Canadians), occasionally receive a revelation. Upon a visit to a mainstream non-ethnic church with our friends, we get a taste of how grace is understood and practiced by a non-Asian.
Ooooh. Somehow, grace tasted different from how it’s practiced in my ethnic church. It felt less law-oriented. Less rules-based. There is a feeling of more liberty and freedom and grace is truly practiced in the Christian life. It sounded more like something that Jesus would teach and practice.
Example of Jesus healing the lame man at the pool in John ch. 5. Jesus wanted to prove that sins can be forgiven. In effect, he was trying to convey the thought: “Your sins are forgiven. And by the way, you are healed too. So pick up your mat and walk… Now do you believe your sins are forgiven? Do you need any more proof than this?”
As bible-believing Christians, we are called to trust in God’s grace for forgiveness of sins. God’s mercy and grace endureth forever. They’re supposed to endure forever anyway. Now we got to see it practiced in people’s lives. Grace looked, smelled, tasted and sounded different than how it was taught in my ethnic Chinese church.
Years later after seminary and after ordination into Ministry into Word and Sacrament, I realized that grace had nothing to do with the racial or ethnic makeup of the church. Grace is not a western idea. Rather, it had everything to do with right theology.
When second-generation Christians make the heart-wrenching decision to leave the ethnic church of our parents’, we do it because we have found a new openness of grace in the mainstream American church.
It starts when we will begin to notice a dichotomy between how the two cultures understand and apply grace. We observe how people and fellow Christians treat one another. They treat one another with love and respect because there is grace in their lives. God’s grace becomes apparent when they feel a liberty and freedom in their spirituality.
We sense the fruit of grace first. We feel liberty and freedom but we don’t know where it comes from. Initially, we can’t pinpoint what it is. Sometimes we mistake the freedom for laissez-faire (i.e., anything goes). But no. That’s not it.
When we finally realize that the spirit of freedom and liberty comes from grace, we will run to God for grace. When we can’t identify where freedom and liberty comes from, we are still lost. When we are lost in darkness, we can only resort to an artificial freedom. This artificial freedom can only be had through redirecting our own failures onto other people. How so? Judging others, condemning attitudes, and by accusing others of their faults so we look better than them.
The Law works like a Mirror
Previously, there would be a heavy spirit of judgment, condemnation, and accusation. This heavy spiritual atmosphere exists in ethnic Asian churches because of our own requirements we place on ourselves to follow rules and laws. Rules can only sink a ship. Rules do not lift us up out of danger. Rules and our failure to obey the rules act only indicators of danger. It warns us that we are sinking and need a life-raft.
Martin Luther taught that the Law was like a mirror. We look at the Law like we look into a mirror and see our own sins. When we notice our own sins and weakness and failures, we realize our need for a savior. That is the full extent of the Law. The Law and our following of the Law cannot save us. The business of saving is the job and work of the gospel. The forgiveness of sin is God’s gift or grace received by faith. This is why we sometimes call it a “faith”. The irony is that other religions do not necessarily place such a premium on faith. They really value good works rather than faith. True authentic Christianity is based on faith rather than works.
The ideas of “freedom from law” in western churches stands in stark contrast to the “duty to obey the law” in ethnic East Asian churches.
We will sometimes rebel against our own ethnic churches because we find it very stifling. Sometimes, we might not even understand why we feel stifled in Chinese or Korean churches. All we know is that somehow we just don’t feel comfortable. We feel that we don’t measure up and never will. We feel we are being judged at every turn.
As a result, we end up leaving the Asian church and end up going to mainstream churches outside our cultural/ethnic upbringing.
Sadly, there are others who end up leaving the Church entirely–perhaps never to return. They might be those we grew up together with in Sunday school. Sad. They were the “spiritual losers” who couldn’t hack it. They could not subject themselves to the continuous fakeness and inauthenticity of having to perform an act every Sunday.
Perhaps they were the smart ones who didn’t care to put on a show. Kudos to them. I applaud you for your desire for authenticity, and for your abhorrence for hypocrisy. Thumbs up to you brothers and sisters. Too bad the aunties and uncles just don’t get it.
These were the religious and spiritual casualties that arose as a result of our religionism. Their absence from the church still pains the hearts of Asian parents.
The irony is that they don’t understand why their left. They might not ever come to understand the reason themselves. Unless they come to truly understand the heart and soul that makes the “theology of grace” tick, they will not be able to see past their own dark corners in their religionism. Dead religion can have such a grip on people’s hearts. It can blind us.
Welcoming the Stranger
Many of the older generations of East Asian Christians have grown up with a Confucianized Christianity. They cannot see the difference that grace makes. They do experience joy when a non-believer comes to faith in Christ. The call to salvation “Billy Graham style” is always has a dramatic effect on all believers. They love to witness the salvation of a person’s soul, and the joy that Christ brings into one’s life.
The new birth of a non-believer is a rarity these days in our churches. We do not witness a stranger walking into a strange church. If a stranger were to actually do so, they might not know what to do with that stranger.
I remember a stranger walking into the church. She was not Asian. Not white or brown. Turns out she was Afro-Carribean. I will never forget about her. She came in with tears streaming down her face. As a pastor, I offered her a seat and invited her to share. As I listened and empathized as best I could, I could feel her heart open up and saw a smile come into her face. Near the end of our conversation, I invited her to return on Sunday for a church service. She did and returned to Sunday church numerous times. I considered her a faithful attendee. She continued attending even after I left that church.
On these Sundays, I wondered what the older aunties and uncles were thinking when they saw her. They likely didn’t know what to do with a person like her. Should they say “hello”? Do they try to make conversation with her and get to know her as a person? I know she did try to connect with them, but I can’t say I know they tried to connect with her.
Were there questions running through their minds every time they saw her? There certainly had to be many. “Why is she here in our church? Why don’t he or she attend a black church, or a brown church? Wouldn’t he or she feel just a little uncomfortable coming to “our” church? If so, then why is he/she still attending our ethnic church? Wouldn’t she or he feel more comfortable in a church for their own kind?”
All kinds of judgmental thoughts run through our minds. Is this supposed to be a true reflection of the kingdom of God? We know it isn’t. We also know there isn’t much we can do about it. We cannot control how our elders feel or think. If we spoke our mind, it would be disrespectful. Disrespect is also a sin–perhaps a bigger sin.
I never asked this dear sister why she wasn’t attending a black church. Some questions came to me years later. I don’t know why I never got to ask her before. I didn’t want to be too direct. Did she previously try attending a black church but decided to leave? Had she also experienced judgmentalism? Were there also accusing hearts and eyes in her previous church? Perhaps she had left and didn’t bother looking for another black church. Perhaps she was already tired from the spiritual exhaustion of having to deal with the hypocrisy and judgmentalism. Had she become a “leaver” never to return to her previous home church? I would not be surprised if this was all an affirmative “Yes”. Somehow, the Holy Spirit led her to our church and she decided to give this Chinese church a shot.
This is one of the types of challenge our second-generation experiences within the ethnic church. There is not only a spiritual disconnect, but also a cultural disconnect. We cannot truly be that American (or Canadian) church we wish we could be within the melting pot society we live in.
The Sickness of Hypocrisy
Churches are full of hypocrites. Hypocrites exists in churches. They come in all shapes, sizes, and colors, all denominations, and they exists in all countries around the world. Hypocrisy, sin of judgmentalism and accusation exists in every church.
A perfect church does not exists. If anyone is on the lookout for a perfect church, they will never find one. If they think they’ve found one, they should join it. Once they join the church, it will no longer perfect. Upon inner deep self-reflection, they might realize they are also the source of the problem. We are all sinners.
We are a sin-sick institution. Each of us bring our own sickness and viruses. It can spread into every nook, cranny and crevice inside the church. The virus of our sin will never leave until one day when Christ returns to receive his church back home. Then we will be forever redeemed in full. Until then, we will have to suffer with having to continually be redeemed and sanctified every day.
All human beings, Christian or not, are sinners. All Christians are simultaneously a saint and a sinner. This is one of the teachings taught by Martin Luther. It’s a teaching that some of my fundamentalist / conservative evangelicals do not grasp. The thought of being a sinner haunts the core of who they are. Or rather, it scares the crap out of them because they cannot bare the thought they might have some sort of inner moral imperfection.
You see, when a Christian who functions in the realm of works-righteousness, they are in full-time denial that they are morally imperfect. It is hard work having to try to put on “a show” to prove they are “worthy of their calling.” To deal with this life is to constantly live in a confused state.
Living the holy life for God
none of us are ever free from following rules in this world. As human beings, we have a duty to our fellow humanity to be a better human being, to better our society, and to love our neighbor.
Folks, I don’t mean to demean piety, or minimize holy living, and put down the righteous lifestyle. Not at all! We love God because He loved us first. Piety and holiness are the result or expression of our love and devotion to God. When we feel loved by God, we can be so moved by the love of the Counsellor that we desire to live holy lives for God. Our devotion always comes out of God’s deep love for us. If a person has never experienced the deep love of God in their lives, what reason would he or she have to live holy lives for God? There would be no reason.
This is another reason why one’s desire to live a holy life for God is never a barometer of one’s personal righteousness or morality. We are the ones who decide to live a holy life for God. It is not a duty but a desire out of personal conviction. God does not force anyone to live a holy life for God. It is always a personal decision to commit to such a life of devotion.
As the sinful hypocrites we are, we like to make a show of our piety and devotion to God. Why? We think it shows the world our own righteousness. The thing is, our piety has nothing to do with our own righteousness. Righteousness can only be from God, and it is only God’s to give. Therefore, to try to prove to others our own righteousness would make us liars. It’s fake and inauthentic.
People despise others who are fake and inauthentic are liars. One of the Ten Commandments is “You shall not lie.” It is so ironic that rules-based religionists want to follow the Law but they still end up breaking the commandment to not tell a lie.
Spiritually and emotionally tuned people can smell fakeness an inauthenticity from a mile away. It doesn’t take a Christian to pick up on fakeness. When I see it in others, I smirk and think to myself, “Why the fakeness? Why put up your show. It only shows the deep insecurity in yourself. It glaring and super obvious.”
The solution, then, is to be genuine. We ought to be real and genuine before God, then and only then, can God have a place in one’s heart to welcome his Spirit into one’s life.
Many Christians who grew up in Christian homes, myself included, value and cherish our Christian heritage. We wish to pass on our Christian devotion down to our children, and to our children’s children. We just don’t want to pass on the baggage that comes along with rules-based religionism.
A pre-occupation with following a set of laws and rules can be spiritually damaging. It inadvertently gives young people the false impression that Christianity is first and foremost about following rules, laws, and regulations. That is not what Christianity is about. It is really about receiving God’s grace through faith.
This faulty theology, and as subtle as it is, can also exist in many other denominations (Roman Catholic, evangelical, Reformed, etc.). God forbid, it can even exist in some of our precious ethnic Chinese Lutheran churches.
Why does faulty theology creep into the church?
Perhaps we feel insecure about having to fully trust in grace. Why? Grace is outside of our control. The gift of God’s grace is not within our control. Grace can only be a gift of God in Christ Jesus.
Yes, I know we hear this lingo spoken all the time. It’s just that we don’t put “grace through faith” as the first priority in our Christian spirituality and practice.
We feel more in control when we can levy punishment and discipline on those who disobey the law. This is a great temptation and the devil knows it. An offer to control was what the devil used in order to tempt Jesus in the desert.
Example: I can discipline my child when he/she disobeys me or the household rules (e.g., not obeying curfew hours; playing too much video games; hitting another sibling or another kid; throwing temper-tantrums; etc.).
We like having the control. We can levy punishment for social and civil disobedience because we feel it can curb bad behavior. It’s positive punishment.
As a result of our rules-based Confucianized Christianity, Christians can seem like an intolerant bunch. We judge a person first before offering forgiveness. You know how mean cops will beat up the criminal or suspect first. Second, get a confession out of him (false or true). Third, forgiveness can come later or last. But following rules come first.
I know the church has not done a good job at loving one another. We put more faith in trying to correct one another’s behavior.
Please don’t misunderstand. There is absolutely nothing wrong with following rules. It’s just that being a Christian is not about following the law. Being a Christian is not about living according to rules.
What?!! No rules? No this is not what I am saying. I know others who read this will still misinterpret what I am saying. I am not saying forget about the rules. Please keep reading.
Being a human being does require us to abide by laws, by good, fair and equitable laws. It only helps to better society. And yes, Confucius believed this too. There!
The caveat to this is to understand that the following of rules and the law is NOT what makes one a Christian.
What makes a person a Christian is to trust in the grace of God for forgiveness of our sins.
What makes a person a Christian is not one’s rule-abiding behavior. It simply cannot be in our ability to follow rules to the Tee.
What if a Muslim, a Confucianist, a Buddhist, or a Hindu could follow laws just the same as Christians. Would their following of rules make them a Christian too?
The answer is: … and I hope you agree… is “No.”
To make my point, what if a Muslim were to follow Christian biblical rules, would that then make a Muslim a Christian?
Beginning to sound like non-sense? I sure hope so. I hope you can see my point here.
The ONLY thing that defines a Christian is one’s trust in Jesus for the forgiveness of sins that comes through Christ. It is totally about FAITH. Faith is the ONLY thing that makes a person a Christian. Believing in the grace of God in Christ Jesus is the only thing that makes one a believer. It is not behavior that makes one a believer.
Some of my fundamentalist or conservative evangelical brothers and sisters in Christ have been in-grained with the wrong teachings. I also was at one point in my life.
This false belief and false doctrine can weaken one’s genuine faith. It can also lead to a worst thing–a total collapse of one’s faith in Jesus.
How so? Take for instance, when a Christian witnesses a non-Christian behaving morally better than a Christian. What can happen? Doubt can set in.
I have heard this many times. “That non-believer…or my Hindu friend, or Muslim friend behaves better than a Christian.” If it is behavior that defines a Christian, then we are not trusting in faith. We are trusting in behavior.
We have planted our own seeds of doubt. It causes a false belief. When that false belief germinates and grows, the spiritual result can only be disastrous.
We become disappointed in ourselves and other Christian for not being able to hold to “good Christian” behavior. Doubt sets in. Disappointment in Christianity sets in. This can easily lead to loss of faith and possibly agnosticism or even atheism. It’s no wonder we have so many casualties, and that our churches are slowly emptying out.
I know this is a lot to take in. From the surface, it does’t seem possible that this false doctrine of works-righteousness can lead to atheism or loss of faith.
I have thought long and hard about this. I believe this false doctrine in our evangelical churches has contributed to the loss of faith.
I also believe that the loss of many of our young people, and even generations of young people, have caused a decline in the wider universal/catholic church.
The great temptation is to believe more in following rules than we do believing in God’s grace. What, then, is grace for? And how is grace to be applied in our Christian walk?
Answer is: there would not be any further use for grace. Why bother trusting in grace when we can trust in good human behavior?
If we trust more in humanity’s good behavior, good behavior then becomes our salvation. Good behavior becomes the measuring stick that determines who is a “good Christian.”
You know what? Humanism precisely takes this very idea, except with a different twist. Humanism absolutely believes in the potential of human beings ability to be perfect. Perfection in the human is the ultimate goal. We aren’t there yet so we have to keep trying and working to perfect ourselves as human beings and as “good human beings.” This is pure New Age philosophy.
In a funny way, we have become the Star Trek generation of Christendom. Gene Roddenberry, creator of Star Trek, would have been pleased where the evangelical church has come. We have gone “where no one has gone before.” We are trying to be better human beings through good works.
Belief and faith is more challenging to the average person. I know that. There is no real way to measure faith. We cannot see faith. It is not visible. Hebrews 11:1 says:
“Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” (NIV)
We’ve been trained to trust that one’s actions speak louder than words. We are more willing to believe that we can trust one’s behavior becasue faith is something we cannot see.
We fail to trust that one’s actions can be true indicators of one’s faith. It is, and it isn’t. From a human level, yes, it’s true. But in terms of the gospel, it’s cannot be true.
As a result of our doubt concerning faith alone, the only thing we can trust then, will be one’s right actions and behavior. Human actions and behaviors are so very fleeting. It comes and goes when it pleases. When we are having a good week or good day, we manage to perform well.
When we’re having a tough day or a tough week, or it’s stressful, we might not do so well. When we know we haven’t performed up to standard. We can either hide our failures and behave hypocritically. Or we can accuse others of performing below par in order to make ourselves look better. There is no way out of this predicament. It is a predicament of shame and guilt.
It is no wonder we have such a difficult time with Paul’s doctrine of “grace through faith.” We have a hard time grasping the full impact of this doctrine, especially when we have to look through our lenses of works-righteousness.
God help the Church! We ought to pray for our churches, our congregations and parishes. We have to pray for repentance because we have fallen for fables and false doctrines.
To us who’ve been enlightened by the doctrines of grace, may our desire to live rightly continue to come as a result of God’s love poured out into us. It is about having faithalone in Christ, and trusting that in Christ alone, through God’s grace alone, God will make us pure, righteous and sanctified.
I know that has been a long blog post. Thanks for taking the time to read up to the end.
In Jesus calling of his first disciples, I am continually surprised by Simon Peter’s initial statement to Jesus (Luke 5:8-9):
“But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” For he and all who were with him were astonished at the catch of fish that they had taken.”
“Depart from me“: Peter tells Jesus to go away because he is a sinful person. Why would he tell Jesus to depart from him? If you’ve treated someone with nothing but bad behaviour, but they in turn treat you with kindness—how would you feel? You might feel a sense of guilt or shame. Why? You know you don’t deserve the kindness they’ve shown you.
I remember someone I had not seen for years had come to me to apologize for something they had done many years ago. I had already forgotten about it long ago. He blessed me more than the blessings I had to offer him. I did not deserve it. That’s grace.
Peter knew he had just encountered the holy One of God. The power and grace of God was evident in the huge amount of fish God had just provided. They fished all evening but had caught nothing, but now, their net was so full of fish it began to tear. It must have blown his mind. That’s grace.
Peter was overwhelmingly convinced in that encounter with Jesus that God’s grace was sufficient. Jesus wanted Peter to understand that there is nothing in heaven and earth that could stop the power and love of God from flowing down. Grace had just poured out to Peter–despite his sinfulness. This miraculous catch of fish was evidence that Jesus was the Son of God. He had enough proof. He left his nets, boat, and followed Jesus.
“For I am a sinful man“: Peter was giving Jesus a preliminary warning. “I don’t deserve to be in the presence of your holiness. You are holy; I am not. I would be bad for you and your image. I’ve stolen, perhaps broken numerous laws, and should not count myself worthy of being in your presence.”
What might a person say to Jesus today? “Jesus, I’ve cheated on my tax return. Claimed more expenses than what’s legal. Or maybe, I’ve broken environmental laws by spilling toxic waste into the water system causing sickness to many. Or maybe, I’ve robbed a bank or defrauded other people our their hard-earned savings or pension. Jesus, I’m not like you. You are good. I’m rotten. You might not know how bad I am but I do bad things to people. I feel guilty and ashamed. I don’t deserve to be given such a huge gift.”
Or we might also tell Jesus, “No you must have given the blessing to the wrong person. Bless that other guy over there. He does good things for the community. She gives to homeless and volunteers her time to good causes like the marginalized and the sick. But me? If you really knew who I am, and the horrible and illegal things I’ve done, you wouldn’t want to be around me. So Jesus, save your time and just head on over there to the other fishermen who is more deserving of this big gift of fish. They deserve it.”
But Jesus affirms. Jesus turns to Peter and says: “No Peter, I’ve got the right person. You are the person I am giving this gift to. And maybe Jesus didn’t even give an explanation about grace. Kept it simple. It’s for you Peter. I really meant to give this to you.
His reaction. A big surprise. Perhaps he was overwhelmed with emotion and wept in private. He decided that Jesus’ acceptance of him was proof of God’s love for a sinner like him.
Today, God’s mercy is still the same. He accepts you the way you are. His love for you never changed. He is still the same yesterday, today and will be the same tomorrow.
This story of the great catch is about Jesus calling you. Telling you through his miracle of the fish that his acceptance and love for you is great. It is just a small sampling of God’s abundant grace. He says to you. You are mine. You are my son. You are my daughter. My love and acceptance for you is bigger than you thought. I have not made a mistake. You are the one I meant to give this to.
If you pray to the Lord: “Jesus, I accept your grace. Your grace is enough for me.” An appropriate reaction might be to drop your proverbial nets, leave your boats, and follow Jesus today. He is holding his arms to you today and saying, “Come, follow me and I will make you fishers of men, and catchers of people.”
There is a temptation to add to the gospel supplementary reasons why Christ Jesus came to earth, namely teachings on prosperity and social justice.
Does the gospel necessarily include prosperity or an inherent calling to improve the world through working to heal the environment or eliminate poverty. It might be a spirituality but I do not believe it is part of the gospel.
Within the traditional Christmas passage is Zechariah’s prophecy in Luke 1:76-77,
“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins…”
In a nutshell, vv. 76-77 state the purpose in the ministry of John the Baptist. What stands out here is: “to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins.” The gospel is exactly this. Salvation through the forgiveness of sins. Theology would be much simpler if we stick with this essential gospel teaching.
My fellow believers in both prosperity-based charismatic churches and mainline churches propagate an extrinsic side to the gospel, adding to it, non-core issues, and then calling it the gospel. One author called the gospel as having a “hole in the gospel,” which implies that something is missing in the gospel, namely, an extrinsic activism in the world.
These dear brothers and sisters in the environmental and anti-poverty movements will sometimes conveniently ignore forgiveness of sins to the detriment of the gospel, preferring social activism or prosperity over teaching forgiveness of sins. To critique this doesn’t mean that I’m against environmental protection. I believe in a cleaner environment. It doesn’t make me a non-charismatic if I do not buy into prosperity-teaching. I believe in the charisms of the Holy Spirit.
I challenge my fellow believers to prove to me that the bible promises prosperity or an ideal environment or perfect physical health. Yes, in the redeemed new heaven and earth, I would agree; but in the current world, this is where I beg to differ.
Did Jesus come to authorize us to create an ideal global-earthly environment or promise us financial prosperity in this lifetime? Is this what the Scriptures teach? I have my doubts. Did Jesus truly come to preach and teach a gospel that includes prosperity or the social gospel? I’m not so sure.
If we were to ask some of our believers in some war-torn and impoverished countries if they believe Jesus came to bring such things, I wonder what they would say?
Jesus teachings can be interpreted to include some of these social issues but they were not clear and direct teachings of Jesus. I’ve heard some distortion of teachings to included with biblical references and all; however, I haven’t been convinced by their interpretations. It all comes down to interpretation or misinterpretation doesn’t it?
There is also a real spiritual injury to adding extra-biblical teachings to the gospel. When people experience suffering or lack financial prosperity or good health in their personal lives or in society, they blame God. This opens oneself up to doubt and can result in a walking away from the Church’s holy faith and/or toward a works-based religion. We see this in some of our Word of Faith charismatic churches and mainline/United/Methodist churches.
Am I against the betterment of society in this world. No. I’m all for a cleaner environment, benevolence, and bettering one’s life in this world now.
I am just purporting a clear division between earthly works and the gospel. Keep the gospel the gospel, and keep our earthly works as earthly works. Never the twain shall meet, otherwise, we confuse works as gospel. Such a confusion can create a false religion.