Reasons for Hope, Part 1: Promises for You

Paying attention to the news is a good recipe for pessimism. I noticed the other day that most of what I read and much of what I write is fairly negative, always attacking this or complaining about that. Given the state of American culture and the American church, perhaps that is unsurprising or even necessary. But it is important to remember that even when events are discouraging and it seems like our culture is sliding rapidly downhill, Christians have every reason to be fundamentally optimistic. Today and next week, I’ll be considering a few reasons why we can be hopeful even when the news of the day is not. The first reason is that you and I have very practical promises of daily help from God himself.

Unfortunately, the popularity of the “health and wealth” prosperity gospel means that any discussion of God’s promises needs to start by noting what he did not promise. Nowhere in the Bible does God promise you health, wealth, or any other material indulgence if you can just conjure up enough “faith.” Rather, the Scriptures suggest that trials are an ordinary part of Christian life. Peter warns, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you” (I Peter 4:12), and the epistle to the Hebrews says, “Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted… He disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness” (12:3,10). Of course, like Paul, we can and should pray that God would lift our trials, but, also like Paul, we must be prepared to be content if the answer is “no” (II Cor. 12:7-10).

Feeling the optimism yet? Thankfully, this isn’t the end of the story. One of the dangers of theological mistakes is that, in addition to misleading those who believe them, they also divert those who swing too far in the other direction. It is easy, in reaction against false prosperity-gospel promises, to act as if God has not offered any promises that might be relevant in the moments between our salvation and the day of final judgment. In fact, though, we have many remarkable promises for daily life, some of which I have discussed elsewhere. For the moment, I want to focus on two promises which I find particularly encouraging when I start to feel downcast about the state of the world.

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A few words about ‘bad words’

I recently came across a social media post from a minister who sent his young son to a conservative Christian summer camp and was disturbed to learn upon his return that all the other campers “swore like sailors.” According to his post, the boys told his son that the Bible says swearing is fine, and the camp counselor declined to take a position on the question. I’m not naming the camp because I know I only have one side of the story, but the vignette is not particularly surprising, as many Christians increasingly view concerns about foul language as mere legalism or political correctness. Given the Bible’s deep concern with what comes out of believers’ mouths, it is worth considering whether being “the salt of the earth” excludes language that is, well… salty.

One challenge when talking about swearing is that it comes in a few flavors, not all of which are created equal. Some swearing is a direct violation of the Third Commandment: “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain” (Ex. 20:7). If you are invoking the name of God to highlight the frustration of stubbing your toe or the excitement of winning your fantasy football bracket, you are breaking the Third Commandment. Period.

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A practical guide to abiding

The blueprint for a strong faith and a fruitful life is not complicated. It is sometimes difficult, yes, but not complicated. Jesus told his followers, “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:4-5).

A fruitful Christian life means abiding in Christ. But perhaps “abide” is not immediately enlightening. What does it mean to abide in Jesus? For many of us, I imagine “abide in me” sounds like a vague call for Christ-directed mindfulness or something similarly amorphous. In fact, though, Jesus himself explained in very concrete, practical terms what it means to abide in him, both in John 15 and elsewhere in Scripture.

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Chariots, horses, and living Christianly in post-Christian America

So, we can all agree that modern-day America is not a Christian nation, right? For many believers, it seems the now-inevitable nomination of Donald Trump by nominally conservative voters has put an exclamation point on a demoralizing story of pushback and defeat in the “culture war.” Losing battles is hard, but losing allies is sometimes harder. Being a Christian in the public square suddenly feels a lot lonelier, which may be why we are hearing increasing calls to abandon it altogether. Stop pretending America is a Christian nation; stop trying to engage, let alone restore, the culture.

In some ways, this growing disenchantment with the political process is a good thing. Democracy and the political process have always offered a tempting shortcut past the Great Commission. Winning elections is more exciting than winning souls and offers more immediate and dramatic results, with a good deal less dying to self required in the process. Worse, as long as Christian causes were political winners, our cultural strength masked deeper problems, as the lazy conviction that America was Christian helped hide the degree to which the American church was not.

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First, be righteous

Given the state of our country, it is probably no surprise that reform and revival have been on my mind lately. I’ve been studying through a few Old Testament prophets and was reminded of the urgency of repentance, as well as how quickly God restores and forgives when we ask. His promise to Jeremiah is particularly encouraging: “At one moment I might speak concerning a nation or concerning a kingdom to uproot, to pull down, or to destroy it; if that nation against which I have spoken turns from its evil, I will relent concerning the calamity I planned to bring on it” (Jer. 18:7-8). It is never too late to turn back.

Being a Christ-follower in a fallen world means we are in a similar place to those Old Testament prophets, calling out to the lost and rebellious to turn and repent. That being the case, it behooves us to prayerfully consider how reformation happens, at least on the human end of things. I fear we may be handicapped by a mistaken blueprint of what true revival looks like and how it begins.

Any attempted reformation–whether of a nation or a marriage or anything in between–which sees itself first and foremost as a project to get other people to behave differently is almost certainly doomed to produce little but frustration and exhaustion. We must think of reformation less as a matter of reorganizing or clarifying and more like a kind of good virus. We need carriers, not captains.

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When Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons are at the door

One of the most frustrating things about trying to share the gospel with our friends and neighbors is that most unbelievers simply don’t want to talk about it. They feel like they know about Christianity already, and they aren’t interested in hearing any more. If only there were people who wanted to talk about religious things. Well, there are–and they have probably come to your door recently. Unfortunately, for many Christians the twin silhouettes on the porch are cause for whispers and a hasty retreat to a back room rather than excitement at an opportunity to share the gospel.

Our hesitation is understandable, of course. It is hard to know what to say to a Jehovah’s Witness or a Mormon, and it is frustrating to invest time in a conversation that will most likely bear no immediate fruit. But a little preparedness can change all that. Ask yourself this: How many chances have you gotten to share the gospel in the past year? Is it as many as you would like? As Jesus would like? When a JW or LDS team shows up, God has literally brought a witnessing opportunity right to your door. Don’t let them get away!

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Contentment, pagan and Christian

For the great teachers of paganism, contentment rests on the idea that expecting nothing is the only way to avoid disappointment. The Stoic philosopher Epictetus taught his followers that the events of life are beyond our control. Trouble, pain, and suffering may or may not come, but when they do, we cannot do anything about it. All we control, Epictetus said, is our response. Therefore, the secret to contentment is to discipline ourselves to accept the inevitable with calmness.

In Buddhism Plain and Simple, Zen teacher Steve Hagen tells an old story about the Buddha. A farmer came to him with a long list of concerns and complaints about his health, his family, his work, on and on. He asked the Buddha for advice. The teacher’s response was simple: “I can’t help you.”

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Believing when we pray

In the penultimate scene of Abraham’s life, he sends a faithful servant to find a wife for Isaac from among Abraham’s people. As the patriarch instructs his servant, warning him not to take a wife for Isaac from among the Canaanites and assuring him that God will provide a suitable spouse, Abraham adds a very interesting qualification.

The Lord, the God of heaven, who took me from my father’s house and from the land of my birth, and who spoke to me and who swore to me, saying, “To your descendants I will give this land,” He will send His angel before you, and you will take a wife for my son from there. But if the woman is not willing to follow you, then you will be free from this my oath; only do not take my son back there. (Genesis 24:7-8)

Abraham expresses confidence that God will send his angel ahead of his servant to ensure success, but, nonetheless, he adds instructions for what the servant is to do if his mission fails. Is this a lack of faith on Abraham’s part? Is he doubting whether God will really keep his promises?

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‘More than the watchmen for the morning’

I recently stumbled across an oddly compelling vignette of reluctant heroism hidden away in a ridiculous 80s rock song. The overwrought lyrics caught my attention because, buried amid the electric guitar and the tacky hair, they actually paint a striking picture of the ugly struggles and ambiguous victories that are part of the sanctification of a sinner among sinners. The song is “Family Man,” the band is Hall & Oates, and I’m pretty sure they don’t realize they are singing about a hero as they describe a “family man” and his encounter with a prostitute.

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Showing Jesus to the internet

If you’re a Christian, then wherever you are is a mission field. That includes social media. If you’re on Facebook or Twitter or Google+ or anywhere at all where others can see what you say and do, then you’re testifying something about what it means to be a Christian with every key you press. That’s a sobering realization, but it’s also a pretty cool opportunity. In a world where it is hard to find openings for meaningful conversations with unbelievers, you probably have dozens and dozens of people who watch and listen to whatever you want to say, every day, through your social media account. We ought to make the most of that opportunity!

Beyond posting Bible verses
We have to think bigger than the content we post. That is a testimony, sure. But you are most compelling when you are least prepared. The give-and-take of a discussion thread shows far more about who you are in Christ and what you believe. Remember: If people know you are a Christian (and they should!), then every time you hit “Enter,” you’re showing people something about what it means to bear that name.

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