Thursday, January 31, 2019

Are You a Practical Atheist?

Stephen Charnock, a clergyman who lived in the 1600s, said this: “Men may have atheistic hearts without atheistic heads.”

In other words, a man who only believes in his mind that there is a God may not agree in his heart.

An overt atheist, one fully committed to his unbelief, might indulge in moments of speculation, even though in his head he knows better. I once knew an atheist who asked me to pray for him. In his head, he was an atheist, and in his heart, too. But moments of despair or fear, even enlightenment or amazement, may have led him to consider the prospect of God.

I’ve also known a few who’ve asked for prayer, not expecting that it will be done, or if it is done that it won’t accomplish much. The request from this sort of person is not so much a longing for God, but a grasp at pity. No answer is needed, only acknowledgement that the person’s life is not the way he wants it to be. He’s been cosmically cheated out of what he thought was due him.

In his head, he believes. He assumes God is there, or at least he hopes it. He follows certain rules, but others he ignores because they aren’t easy for him. Maybe he goes to church. He gives something of his money and time and attention. In his mind, he finds the notion of God necessary. But in his heart, God is unknown.

A fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” Psalm 14:1

The overt atheist denies God because he sees no option. Nothing proves God’s existence to him. In both heart and mind, God is absent. But an atheist in practice—a practical atheist—finds it hard to let go of what God has become to him. The head belief may be built on tradition. It might come from a childhood acceptance of a religious order. Or it could just be fear of the proverbial zap by a lightning bolt for admitting doubt. The practical atheist says there is a God, but he has no desire, or ability for that matter, to love Him or live for Him. He may call on divine rescue from time to time, but he’s practically noncommittal about the ultimate rescue, even if he says otherwise.

Who’s to blame for the practical atheist’s predicament? Did he attend a church which did not fervently preach the gospel? Was he wrongly led to believe that God would grant him a life of good wishes and happy endings? Perhaps he clings to God in his head because deep in his heart he wants God to be true, but he has never experienced God’s truth. So he goes on living as if there is no God, and what a fool he is for it. He lives as he pleases, not caring for God or others. Not abiding in God’s word, even though he says he agrees with it. Not filled with gratitude, but with self-indulgence.

If he keeps up his act within the church, he might be spotted by a discerning brother. He might be outed by a gospel-centered body of believers. He might be called by God. If so, God will win him, and his practical atheism will let him go.

The overt atheist who asks me for prayer will get prayer. Whether or not his request is genuine, I don’t know. The practical atheist who asks for prayer will get it too. Whether or not his request is genuine, I don’t know. God knows, and God is able to rescue heads and hearts from both atheist camps. From the one that declares there is no God, and from the one that presumes there is a God.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Do the Ten Commandments Still Matter?

An articleI read last week told how prominent pastor Andy Stanley declared that churches should no longer erect monuments of the Ten Commandments because the old covenant does not apply to Christians. After reading the article, and many of the heated comments that followed, I considered my own feelings when the Ten Commandments were removed from the sanctuary at the church I attend.

The lovely banners—five commandments on one and five on another—were handsewn by some of the older ladies in the congregation. The monuments were erected over the side doors near the front of our large sanctuary. They hung there for years. Then one day they were gone, replaced by modern wall d├ęcor reading on one side: LOVE GOD You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind. Matthew 22:37. On the other side: LOVE OTHERS Love your neighbor as yourself. Matthew 22:39.

I smiled at the change, considering it good to remove the old banners and replace them with the simple, two-part New Testament command of Christ. Afterall, we are a church built on the gospel, not the law. We know we can’t keep the law, that our only hope is in the One who came to fulfill the law. We know that living by this new covenant command will guide us to keep the Big Ten: (Yes, I’m paraphrasing.) Don’t accept any gods other than God, don’t establish idols, don’t use God’s name in vain, set aside a day for rest and worship (Yes, I go to church on Sunday.), honor your parents, don’t murder, don’t cheat on your spouse, don’t steal, don’t tell lies about people, don’t yearn for other people’s stuff, privileges, talents, or blessings.

But if we’re no longer obligated to keep the Ten as our code of conduct, does that mean we can forget our history? Are we to denounce the validity and lasting measure of the entire work of the Holy Scripture? The words newly poised in our sanctuary were all we needed to obey the ten laws that used to hang above us. But should those old laws be forgotten, stowed away like an out-of-fashion historical document?

I’m not sure that’s what was suggested in the article I read, or that I was able to grasp Andy Stanley’s full intent in what he had to say about the Ten Commandments. I’m quite sure others who read the piece were left with a blurred perspective. To put it in biblical terms, the article sowed discord among the brethren.

The pastor’s suggestions, whether good or bad, were directed at the church. For decades, the Ten Commandment have been forcefully removed from public view in court houses, schools, and other places. I’d rather see them removed from a gospel-centered church than a courtroom. Whether Jew or Christian, citizen or foreigner, these ten laws God handed down through the ancient Hebrews formed a foundation of civility and order, rightness in community, and respect for proper governing. Our country was built on such laws, and they benefit any civilization wise enough to adopt them. Even the atheist, who may choose to omit the first four commandments for lack of acceptance, will find a better life by obeying the last six. The unbeliever must realize that to break one of these outdated commands will, even today, bring detrimental consequences.

As a New Testament Christian, I’m not required to live by the old law or even know it in its entirety. I won’t attempt to recall every rule pertaining to meat, or fabric, or what course of offering amends what type of sin. But it seems living by the Big Ten should be easy enough for a Christian. Well, maybe not. Maybe we don’t live in a polytheistic culture, but we still put other things ahead of God. Maybe we don’t erect golden idols, but we stare into the glow of our TVs and PCs and smart phones. What about the Sabbath? It’s a source of contention for some believers. Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath. Enough said.

My offenses and misperceptions are covered by the righteousness of Christ. Even so, I’ll strive to follow Him, which means some things are just wrong, no matter what covenant you’re under. I should hope that any church building void of a display of the Ten Commandments is filled with members who have etched those ancient decrees on their hearts.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Happily Newly Yearly

As a writer I know better than to use too many “ly” words. I'll gladly explain to fervently studious yet naively ambitious writers that eliminating those tritely placed and descriptively unneeded extras will get rid of the superfluously posed content we often unnecessarily pen when attempting to make our writing more beautifully meaningful. Of course, what I advise others not to do, I sometimes do myself. Everybody needs an editor.

As in writing, we often see the mistakes and poor decisions others make, but seldom notice the same foibles in our own lives. Sometimes we don’t know any better. It hasn’t been that long since more experienced writers were gracious enough to educate me. But most of the time it’s just easier to inventory the faults of others than to catalog our own shortcomings.

Except for this time of year. This is when we think about how to better ourselves. We will self-improve. Auto-correct. We’ll make a plan and it will happen. We’ll lose weight. We’ll be kinder. Save more money. Give more money. Read all the way through one of those Bible-in-a-year plans. Serve at church more. Pray more. Share our faith more. We’ll be resolute. Not cowardly and inexpressively passive in proclaiming the passionately devoted and victoriously committed hope to which we seriously cling in answering the call of Christ to reach the world with the gospel.

But next week, well, you know how it will go down. Maybe you’ll eat right. You’ll keep your mouth shut when someone does you wrong. You’ll read your daily Bible chapters. You’ll talk to your neighbor about how you can’t believe another year has gone by. Maybe you’ll invite him to church. Then you’ll go inside and wonder if you should have asked him what he knows about Jesus. But surely if he wanted to know more, he’d ask. So you put it out of your mind and go eat another carrot stick. Maybe with a little onion dip on it.                                                                         
Oh, wait, I’m considering my own life here. And I’m going to be truthful about it. I will try. But I will fail. I need an editor. Not just when I write, but when I breath. When I walk out my front door. When I plan my next move. When I come up with strategically thought-out but persistently unreliable motivationally inept schemes to improve myself.

This is my life. The one I laid down since Christ gave up His life to free me from death. I’m raised to walk in newness of life with Him. I might not get it all right in this lifetime. This time next year, I’ll plan all over again. But The Editor is patient and forgiving. He knows I’m not too bright. And I know he’ll clean up this overly red-inked habitually erred manuscript I recklessly tear through page after page, year after year. Maybe by my release date, I’ll learn something. God knew all along he’d have to correct every stroke of my pen.

Happy New Year. I hope you keep your resolutions. As for me and mine, I’m not holding my trembly breath. But God willing, 2019 will carry me nearer to His flawless plan.