Never Enough

Why is nothing in this life ever enough?

James Bond tells us that the world is not enough. Billionaire John D. Rockefeller is reputed to have said “Just a little bit more” when asked how much money was enough. While King of England, Henry VIII created a new church, the Anglicans, and made himself the supreme religious leader. Gibbons’ Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire chronicles an endless line of men and women from Europe, Africa, and Asia who stopped at nothing to grab the Imperial purple.

The past is no different from the present. Bashar al Assad in Syria has butchered thousands of his own people to retain the reins of power. Chief executives from Beijing to Ankara deceive and destroy in the name of virtue but ultimately to exalt themselves. The world of work can resemble gladiators in the Forum, with managers and employees at every level whispering, gossiping, flattering, threatening, shaming, and accusing subordinates, peers, and superiors to try to look good and get ahead.

This is not to say that all people and organizations are equally prone to such behavior. Some Roman emperors were crowned against their will and ruled with as much virtue as they could muster.  Some politicians energetically pursue the public good. Some billionaires, including John D. Rockefeller, are generous philanthropists. Some work teams and companies are honestly united around a common mission, truly get along, and generally treat each other well. Some leaders are genuinely inspirational and self-sacrificing, placing the needs of others before themselves.

Why does this conflict rage within us? As usual, the Bible has the answer. Proverbs 27:20 tells us that “Hell and destruction are never full, so the eyes of man are never satisfied.” Even the best of us, in our best moments, can think of something that we want. The innocent thoughts “I would like a little more…money, fame, power, good looks, or time off” or “I wish my spouse…” or “I wish my kids…” or “I wish…” can quickly turn into “I am dissatisfied.”

Dissatisfaction itself is not necessarily wrong. We should be dissatisfied with injustice and cruelty and do what we can to correct them. To oppose real evils done to others is the mandate of a follower of Christ.

But dissatisfaction is like a weed that soon grows out of control. Our dissatisfaction with morally wrongs quickly becomes dissatisfaction with things that we simply don’t like. Our indignation with genuine injustice rapidly morphs into anger at “people not giving us our due.” We spend time resenting our bosses for “unfair pay” or “lack of a promotion” and our coworkers for “trying to look good in front of the boss” and “making me look bad.” No matter what good things we receive – pay, promotions, people, and opportunities – they are overshadowed by our resentment at what we didn’t.

The root problem is that God has put eternity in our hearts (Ecclesiastes 3:11), but we think in terms of time. Since He is God, our Creator, our Sustainer, and the source of all that is good in the universe, we cannot be joyful outside Him. Innately prideful and unwilling to follow His moral laws, we want to be joyful in ourselves. God is eternal, but our focus is temporal. He is infinite, but our desires are finite. He wants to give us life forever and joy unbounded, but we want a bigger house, a shinier car, and a more important job. God offers the chance to praise Him, but we want to praise ourselves. He has set us a little lower than Himself, but we crave being higher than the guy or gal next door.

No matter what we get, it is never enough. Man tries to fill his soul, the part that craves the infinite, with the finite. We try to build bridges across the chasm separating us from God with money, power, fame, human relationships, and achievements. It never works, because only the infinite can fill the infinite, and only the eternal can fill the eternal.

Does One Art Form Bring More Glory to God than Another?

A discussion of professions, the arts, art media, and the glory of God

It is Christmastime, and Christians around the world are singing “Glory to God in the highest.” We rarely consider what they mean. In church, we may parrot the Westminster Shorter Confession, which states that the purpose of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. Again, the words ring true, but what do they really say, and how can we really do them?

Informed Christians understand that God’s people glorify Him in every obedient thought, word, and act. Doctors give honor to the Great Physician by ably treating patients, wives and mothers glorify their Lord by caring for their husbands and children, businessmen give honor to the Great Provider by selling good products and services at fair prices, laborers exalt the Lord of the Harvest with industry and loyalty to their employer, and princes exalt their King by ruling justly. In the right context, eating, sleeping, and recreation glorify God.

Both in my medical and in my pastoral responsibilities, people often ask me, “Do some jobs glorify God more than others? Is a preacher better than a taxi driver? Do some fields within professions that produce greater praise to the Lord?” Specifically, in the context of the arts, is one art form better at glorifying God than another? If so, which art form has brought the most glory to God? This article will discuss that question.

Background

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” So reads the Bible in Genesis and the Gospel of John. He created everything in the universe, and He did so from nothing. Therefore, no created thing that exists in the material realm, or in the spiritual realm, such as angels, exists independent of Him. This truth must inform our exploration into which art form has brought God the most glory.

Our next task is to define, or rather describe, glory. We in the West often think of brightness and beauty when we imagine glory, such as the image of Jesus descending on a cloud, His radiance brighter than the sun. This is true, but there is another aspect to glory. The Hebrews thought in terms of כָּבֹוד “kabowd”, or “heaviness”, and dignity when they wrote of glory. For example, David might be “heavy” with power, Solomon might be “heavy” with wisdom, and Ezekiel might be “heavy” with courage. God’s glory was so heavy and so forceful that He could make mountains flee away and set the boundaries of the sea. “Bringing God glory” might be adding brightness and beauty, or adding heaviness and power, to Him.

We need to lay some other groundwork. God is infinite in each of His attributes, including His glory. As even junior high mathematicians know, infinity cannot be added to, subtracted from, multiplied, or divided. God’s glory is what it is because of who He is. All of creation, whether men or angels, can no more affect the glory of God than we can brighten or darken the sun. The idea of giving God glory is, in the absolute sense, ludicrous. We have none to give, and no one can add to Him anyway.

Why then does the Bible clearly command us to glorify God? The answer is shrouded in mystery, but part of the answer is that while God’s glory is unchanging, our perception of His glory does change. A man cannot dim the sun, but he can sit under a sun shade, go indoors, or even go underground. Doing so, for that person at that time, diminishes the perceived glory of God. We hide often from God’s glory, lest it expose our sins, our weaknesses, and our wicked hearts. Most men actually want God far less than they think they do. He is, after all, much more than any of us bargain for.

But the Creator of the Universe loves each and every person that He has created. He treasures all of His work, from stones and blades of grass to angels. The Lord wants us to glorify Him is so that we all will better experience His glory – so that we might be saved. Man may not want the glory of God, but we desperately need it. That is why our Lord calls us to glorify Him. But which profession, and in this case which art medium, exalts Him the best.

How can we decide which art form has brought the most glory to God?

One approach to deciding which art form has brought the most glory to God is to evaluate the medium used. The chemicals that produce paint and film, the stones that make buildings and statues, the sounds that produce music, the words that weave into literature, the movements that inform dance, and the combinations thereof, belong equally to Him. God made all of these things, and pronounced them all equally “good.” If stones, words, music, and chemicals are equally valuable to God, they cannot, in themselves, contribute in different amounts to His glory. As a result, it is impossible on the basis of the medium itself to definitively state which art form has brought the most glory to God.

Another approach to deciding which art form has brought the most glory to God would be to compare practitioners and works throughout history. We could list some famous artists in each field, or some of the greatest works, and estimate how many people they influenced. For example,

  1. Music – JS Bach, Georg Handel, Fanny Crosby, Charles Wesley
  2. Literature – C.S. Lewis, John Bunyan
  3. Visual Arts – Leonardo Da Vinci (Last Supper), Michelangelo (Sistine Chapel), Rembrandt (Prodigal Son)
  4. Architecture – Hagia Sophia, St Paul’s, St. Peter’s
  5. Dance – Baryshnikov
  6. Theater – The Jesus Film, King of Kings, Ben Hur

One can easily see the failings of this method. I can only list what I know, and every other commentator can only do the same. Thus, there is an insurmountable selection bias in choosing which artists and work to include when evaluating which art form has brought the most glory to God.  I don’t know many Christian dancers or architects, so few are listed here. Someone else will not know many musicians or writers. How famous would an artist have to be to make the list? Millions of painters, singers, and writers have produced fine works for the Lord over the ages, but how does one know who to include, or even who they are?

Other troubles loom large. Once someone makes the list, how do you evaluate their impact? A few possibilities come to mind:

  1. Authors – number of books sold, number of articles clicked on (using the Internet)
  2. Music – number of records/CDs/MP3 files sold, number of tickets sold at concerts, number of songs clicked on (Internet)
  3. Visual arts – number of works sold, number of views of work (online, gallery or museum visitors)
  4. Theater or dance – number of attendees at performances, number of works sold, number of internet visits

These measures of impact miss a lot. Much information is not available (how many people viewed Da Vinci’s painting The Last Supper in March of 1719?), they don’t account for technology (how many internet clicks did Franz Liszt get on his music in his lifetime?), and they are largely financial. However, money is not well correlated with historical impact. John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress is the second most popular Christian book in history, after the Bible, but it did not make a lot of money during his lifetime, and does not today. Lastly, none of these measures account for secondary circulation of any of these works – books sold second hand by private parties, paintings seen on someone else’ photographs, or music enjoyed at a friend’s house. Who knows – perhaps an obscure, 18th century watercolor is the most glory-giving work of all?

Our task of determining which art form has brought the most glory to God seems hopeless. Nevertheless, there is one last item to consider. God chose to reveal Himself to man through stories, through a book, and ultimately through a Man, Jesus Christ. Using human authors, God Himself wrote the Bible. The greatest artists in history have returned to the Holy Scriptures for subject matter, for inspiration, and for comfort. From Shakespeare to Thomas Kincaid, artists have turned to the Bible for what they needed in life and in work. Insofar as the Bible is literature, literature has given the most glory to God over history.

“Wait a minute!” some may object. “It is not fair to compare the Bible, a work of God, to other art works made by man.” This is true. None of us can approach the “Holy Other.” Considering these factors, and excluding the text of the Bible, it is impossible to definitely state which art form has brought more glory to God over history. Actually, I am sure that each art form, and each artist, are equal in giving Him exactly the amount of glory that He intended to receive from that medium, and from that person.

Conclusion

Man’s chief aim is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. We do it in every act, every word, and every thought that is informed by His Spirit and is obedient to His word. The music superstar has no advantage over the trash collector in giving glory – beauty, brightness, weight, dignity, and power – or at least the perception of glory in the minds and hearts of men, to the Lord. The Bible, God-breathed and God-directed, is the written word or God even as Jesus Christ is the incarnate Word of God. Nothing has a greater impact than these.

Comparing the art forms of mortal man, however, there is no art form that is better than the others. The painter has no greater claim to glory than the songsmith, nor the architect to the dancer. The piano impresario who brings money and fame to himself is a beggar compared to the minister who has been leading 50 parishioners in congregational singing for 50 years, but doing it with all his might for the glory of Christ.

God knows, and will someday reveal, those who have served Him well. For now, we press on as members of the Body of Christ, doing our work as He gives it to us.

 

Spiritual Power

What is spiritual power? How do you get it? How do you use it? How do you give the glory to God?

A patient came to me in tears. As a child she had suffered abuse, alcoholism, and even rape. The Christianity she had known was stern and foreboding. Images of the past were hard to overcome, much less erase. Now she was in a good marriage, had a healthy boy, and was in a solid church. Nevertheless, she was fearful and depressed, feeling unable to face most days. Completing the basic tasks of life, such as caring for her infant son and keeping the house, was nearly impossible. In her dark moments, this woman was afraid that she would lose everything she had ever dreamed of, and now had.

She is not alone. One professionally successful acquaintance is going through a divorce, a job change, and struggling with alcohol abuse.  Another young woman told me of her troubles with anxiety and perfectionism while she was cleaning my teeth. A middle-aged friend struggles with his self-worth after being without a job for nearly two years. A woman jumped off the roof of her 17-story apartment building.

Our Naturalistic Bias

Many of these people are Christians, or claimed that they once were. Few of these people had gone to seek counseling from their pastor or other spiritual leader, choosing instead to seek care from a physician. This is no surprise, as in the post-Enlightenment West we have denied the importance, and even the existence, of a spiritual world. Rather, we consider all problems as biologically, chemically, or physically derived and therefore amenable to biological, chemical, or physical cures. Pneumonia is perceived only as a bacterial infection which is treated with antibiotics, and depression is perceived only as a chemical imbalance in the brain which is treated with antidepressants. If we accept these assumptions, going to a physician makes perfect sense; why seek spiritual help if the spirit world doesn’t exist, or if it doesn’t have any real bearing on our day to day life?

Even Christians who genuinely believe in the existence and power of a non-material world have trouble finding spiritual power to help with their problems. Western Christians, especially Americans, are taught that since all followers of Christ have the same Spirit, we all have the right and ability to interpret the Bible for ourselves, and therefore all have the same spiritual power. Genuine Christians readily admit their sins, and the most faithful believers are the readiest to confess their failings. In the interest of relational peace, dedicated saints may take the blame for sins that they did not commit. Thus those who take God most seriously, who know Him best and follow Him the most, are often the least likely to claim spiritual power, even though they have it.

Musings on Power

We must now consider types of power and posit a working definition of spiritual power. Position power is power that is inherent in a person because they hold a socially recognized position. The US President can launch US air strikes on Syrian airbases only because he is the President; no one else in the country can legitimately do so. Referent power is based on what a person knows because of education and experience. Reward and punishment power can be related to position but can also be used to command resources. If I were to please a billionaire, regardless of his relationship to me, he could give me lots of money, fame, power, or other gifts. If I were to anger one, he could sue me for something, valid or not, or buy my company (thus gaining position power) and fire me. Physical power can be derived from great physical skill, strength, or beauty – entertainers, athletes, and models are examples. Relationships also confer power – parents have power over their children, and spouses over each other.

Spiritual Power

Spiritual power is conferred by a being in the spirit realm; a non-material entity. Most people in the world believe in such beings, whether they call them angels, demons, ancestors, tree or animal spirits, gods, or God. Christians would list three types of non-material entities – angels, demons, and God (Father and Holy Spirit) – and two types of hybrid beings (material and non-material) – Jesus Christ (God the Son), and man. Christians differ on the nature of the spiritual forces that animate other living things, such as animals and plants, but that discussion is for another place and time. Muslims might name Allah, angels, and Jinn, and folk religionists might add shamans or witches. Many might argue that every human being has spiritual power, and most would probably affirm that some people have more than others.

The Bible talks a lot about spiritual power.

  1. It is a gift of God, just as all types of power are (position, education, resources, etc).
  2. God gives it for His purposes, even though some creatures (angels, demons, and men) will use such power to cause suffering (Job 1-3).
  3. It is real. Both Moses and the Egyptian magicians used spiritual power to change their staves into snakes (Exodus 7:8-13). The prophets and the apostles performed hundreds of healings and other miracles as recorded in the pages of Scripture.
  4. Spiritual power cannot be sharply demarcated from physical phenomena. Isaiah applied a poultice from a cake of figs to heal Hezekiah’s infection (2 Kings 20:7, Isaiah 38:21), probably because the figs as prepared had grown natural antibiotics. However, the presence of a scientific explanation does not exclude the presence of spiritual power.
  5. Jesus promised that every Christian, everyone indwelt by the Spirit of God, would have spiritual power (John 7:37-39).
  6. Spiritual power most often manifests itself in Christian character – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).
  7. The primary use of spiritual power is to win spiritual battles (1 Corinthians 10:4), though it can be used to change the physical world.
  8. Since spiritual power is not given by man, it cannot be taken away by man (Acts 1:8, Romans 8:35-39).

Spiritual power is problematic to Westerners. Focused as we are on the material universe, we are not sure if we care about a power that primarily affects the spirit realm, which we may doubt really exists. Furthermore, spiritual power is offensive. We believe that “All men are created equal”, but we rarely consider what we mean by that phrase. In practice, we assume an ill-defined egalitarianism which denies differences in power between people, or at least the legitimacy of those differences. None of us like admitting that other people have legitimate power, especially power over us. Position power is the easiest to accept because such power is conferred by others. Presidents can be impeached, chief executives fired, and leaders ousted; what people confer, people can take away. Resource power is harder to legitimately remove, but it can be done. Rich people can be sued, can have their businesses boycotted, and can have their possessions stolen or destroyed. Physical power can be ignored and in any event wanes quickly – athletes and models rarely have careers more than two decades, entertainers a little more or much less, and are soon replaced or even forgotten. Referent power lasts longer, and cannot be removed by others, but is even easier to ignore.

People with these types of power usually hate to be overlooked. Those in high positions need good press to maintain their position. The rich often use their money to impress others and to gain fame. Athletes, models, and entertainers want to display their skill and beauty for all to see and appreciate. They have to, for that is the nature of their jobs. Experts are expected to seek and gain recognition in their field through writing and speaking, and they won’t advance, either through tenure or into upper echelons of the company, if they don’t.

Spiritual power is not conferred by others, and cannot be removed by others. If a king is chosen by God, as was the belief of the “Divine Right of Kings”, no one can take that right away. He may be deposed, but he is still the legitimate king. As the pen is mightier than the sword, so spiritual power is powerful. There are many lists of the most important people in history, but religious leaders such as Jesus, St. Paul, Muhammad, and Siddartha Gautama (the Buddha), always rank very high – higher on average than generals, kings, or scientists. In fact, the greatest generals, kings, and scientists functioned as spiritual leaders. Alexander the Great considered himself a god and commanded awe in his subjects. Napoleon saw himself as a chosen instrument of the Almighty. Mahatma Gandhi’s ascetic Hinduism accounted for much of his authority, and Charles Darwin’s naturalistic assault on the Christian account of the origins of the universe assured his fame.

Spiritual power does not eschew fame but it doesn’t need it, and such power is hard to ignore. It deals with the most important questions of life, those surrounding being, meaning, suffering, eternity, and purpose. It is also hard to ignore because it commands the greatest allegiances – higher than family, tribe, nation, or even person. Christians with great spiritual power want to be heeded for the benefit of others, because such power can bring life and peace. They do not care, however, if people ignore them as individuals, because life is not about them anyway. It is about the glory of God.

Many religions see spiritual power not only in man but also in places and times. The Koran teaches the holiness of Mecca and the requirement for all Muslims to journey there. Hindus go to the Ganges River and Catholics go to Lourdes to experience the spiritual power in those places. Even in more ordinary places such as churches, temples, and mosques, people feel spiritual power. Catholic vestments and Buddhist saffron robes communicate spiritual power. Rituals such as Communion and items such as artifacts and holy books seem to possess spiritual power.

A reader may object that in reality, spiritual power is only conferred by others. The people must believe in the divine right of a king to allow him to rule. The masses need to be convinced of the spiritual power in a man to follow him. A place, such as Jerusalem, only has spiritual power because Christians, Muslims, and Jews believe that it has such power. Clothes such as those worn by a Jewish high priest have power only to Jews – other religionists see only ornate garments – and therefore the spiritual power of these clothes is conferred, not inherent. People who believe that spiritual power does not exist outside of the opinions of others are often those who do not believe that spiritual power exists at all.

There are three reasons to suspect that spiritual power exists regardless of what people think:

  1. Humans exist, and they have some degree of power. If spiritual beings exist, they must also have some degree of power.
  2. Every culture and every religion throughout all of history, even so-called atheistic religions such as Jainism, have recognized some spiritual or at least numinous power, though sometimes they locate that power “life force” in the material universe rather than outside it.
  3. Science, defined as the study of the material universe, can say nothing about the presence or absence of the non-material. Therefore, scientific explanations of events of “spiritual power” can in no way refute those events. If plate tectonics caused an earthquake which killed 1,000 people, that fact does not exclude the possibility that spiritual forces also played a role. Therefore, the main objection to the existence of a spiritual realm actually does not even speak to the question.

The skeptics do make one good point, however. There is no doubt that all power, whether position, referent, resource, physical, or whatever, depends in part on the interplay of the parties in a situation. Even Jesus, the Son of God, was not able to use His spiritual power to heal the sick in Nazareth because of the villagers’ unbelief (Mark 6:4-6).

Sources of Spiritual Power

Ultimately, all types of power come from God, who gives it to men and angels to accomplish His perfect will. In day to day life, however, where and how can people get spiritual power? First, they must believe that the spiritual universe exists. No one who denies spiritual reality will get spiritual power. Second, people who want spiritual power must believe that spiritual power exists. In our modern, mechanistic, and materialistic world, this is easier said than done.

Power of Person

God is the ultimate source of spiritual power, but people are the proximate source. Places such as Jerusalem confer spiritual power to Christians because Jesus was there. Times such as the Sabbath are moments of spiritual power because a person, God, consecrated them.

For someone to gain spiritual power, they must believe that some people have more spiritual power, or are better able to use the spiritual power that they possess, than others. If all men are equal in spiritual power, then no one can help anyone else, and there is no point in trying to get more. People seeking the power of the Spirit must develop their own spiritual power, usually by practicing the spiritual disciplines.[1]

  1. Disciplines of Abstinence (denying yourself to make space to focus on God) – solitude, silence, fasting, Sabbath, secrecy, and submission.
  2. Disciplines of Engagement (Bible reading, worship, prayer, friendship, reflection, and service.

God made man to live in community and spread His power among His people so that we would help each other in life and ministry. Therefore, Christians who need spiritual power to solve problems and become more like God in their lives must learn to identify who has spiritual power. Look for the following:

  1. Fruits of the Spirit
  2. Knowledge of the Bible
  3. Testimony of trusted others
  4. Experiences in service to God
  5. Education in general and special revelation
  6. Prayerful leading of the Holy Spirit
  7. Evidence of the ongoing work of God

Modern technological culture is addicted to numbers. Anything that can be measured and analyzed mathematically is “good”, if not morally than at least analytically, and anything that cannot is “bad”, or at least uncertain. This thinking pervades our Christian life – more people in church is good, more mature people in church is uncertain (because it is hard to measure Christian maturity). Fewer people in church, even if a higher percentage of them are spiritually mature, is “bad”.

Consider another example – prayer. If you have a serious prayer request, a family member with cancer, for example, how do you seek prayer support? Many Christians tell as many others as possible, knowing that some percentage will actually pray for their request, and hoping to get as many believers praying as possible. The underlying assumption is that each person has a certain amount of prayer power, say 10 points, and so having more people pray is more effective than having fewer people pray. If no one has more spiritual power than another, this is a logical strategy. If some people have far more, then a better strategy is to request prayer from those with the power. How many “points” of spiritual power did Paul have? What about Peter, or Moses, or David, or Abraham? Where does your local pastor rank in spiritual power points? Where do you rank?

Notice that we do not follow this strategy if we need money. In that case, we let as many people as we can know of our need, but we specifically request support from those that have more money. We ask the rich for money, but we ask everyone for prayer. What does this say about our belief in spiritual power, or at least our ability to identify it.

There is another interesting dynamic to power, including spiritual power. I have been in health care administration for many decades, and physicians who are clean, neat, and professional appearing tend to have healthier, more compliant patients than those who are dirty, slovenly, and non-professional. This fact holds true even when other factors such as experience are similar. It seems that we attribute power to people based on their appearance, their car, their house, their office, and a host of other factors – even if those factors have little or no direct bearing on that person’s overall performance. If what is true in medicine is equally true in religion, perhaps well-groomed pastors will be perceived as having more spiritual power than poorly groomed ones.

My family had attended a community worship service two weeks before Easter, with black and white ministers, and talked about the spiritual power of these men. The churches where these black pastors serve give them expensive cars; one has a Corvette and the other a Maserati. The white pastors drive sedans, mini-vans, and pick-up trucks. If they have expensive cars, congregants complain that they are paying the pastor too much. But how does the fact that the black church provides a nice car affect the spiritual power of the pastor, both in his eyes and in the eyes of his congregation? Maybe these African American Christians are wise, using their funds to help get something far more valuable, spiritual power.

We learn a lot about spiritual power from God’s instructions to Moses in building the tabernacle and establishing the high priesthood of Israel. Appearance and ceremony confer spiritual power. In Exodus 28, God tells Moses to make holy garments for Aaron, His choice for high priest (vv. 2-3). The Lord’s purpose is “for glory and for beauty” (NASB) or to “give him dignity and honor” (NIV), thus consecrating Aaron for His service.  Aaron and his sons are further set apart to God by the impressive ritual outlined in Exodus 29.  The incense, the anointing oil, the tabernacle, and its furnishings are all beautiful, unique, and set apart as sacred to the Lord. In fact, God specifically forbids anyone from using the same formula for incense (30:37-38) and for the anointing oil (30:31-33) in any other context and for any other purpose. While no physical things, such as garments, buildings, incense, or oil, are required for spiritual power – consider the examples of Paul and Peter, not to mention Jesus – they can confer it.

Self-perceptions of spiritual power are important. All power, whether medical (referent) or spiritual, comes from God. He gives and He takes away; and all glory is ultimately His. The Pharisees and Sadducees in Jesus’ day had spiritual power, but were notorious for thinking too highly of themselves. Paul tells us to think so as to have a sound mind (Romans 12:1-2). Christians dare not overestimate their spiritual power, nor fail to give the glory to God in every circumstance. People pursuing spiritual power must always remember that the purpose of such power is the glory of God, not any type of personal aggrandizement.

This point deserves expansion. If spiritual power is given to an individual by God, then only God can take it away. Thus, a holder of such power may feel unaccountable to others. If it is the most powerful power, because it comes directly from the sovereign of the universe, then a holder of such power may feel that he is sovereign over others. People who are spiritually powerful must be especially humble, because they have a precious gift to be used only for the glory of the Lord and the benefit of others.

However, underestimating our spiritual power is equally dangerous. I was once injecting steroids into the knee of an arthritic patient. I had seen her several times before and we had a great therapeutic relationship, but she was nervous. She said, “Dr. Harris, please be careful, because this is my first time.” I replied, “I will, this is my first time too.” I smiled at the patient, the medic chuckled, because we had done thousands of these injections together, and the patient said, “Dr. Harris!” Everyone laughed, my patient relaxed, and the procedure turned out well. Had I not been confident in my God-given power to handle the situation, I may not have done it, and my patient would have suffered. If pastors and other spiritual leaders are not confident in their God-given spiritual power to address the needs of others, they will not do what the Lord is calling them to do, and people will suffer.

Finally, we must commit ourselves to imitate those with great spiritual power. Seek them out, be mentored by them, and ask them to pray. Just seeing or touching a person of great spiritual power confers a blessing. Hindus pursue darsan, the sight or “face” of the holy, whether a person or a place, to help them encounter Brahman. When I served as the deputy commander for military medical forces at the 2013 Presidential Inauguration, onlookers strained for a glimpse of Barack Obama, and were thrilled if he looked towards them. Catholics wait for hours or days to see the Pope. They may know something that Protestants do not.

Power of Place

Most religions teach that some places, such as Mecca, the Ganges, or a local hill, have more spiritual power than other places. Christians believe that all places have equal power

  1. Neither the Father nor the Son ever identify one place as holier than another. Even the “Holy of Holies” in the Temple was desecrated, and now even the Temple is gone.
  2. God made the whole universe and is equally present in every place therein. Every place is equally dedicated to His glory, and therefore no one place is more sacred than another.

To restate, Christians believe that every place is holy. The disadvantage of this belief is that humans have less trouble seeing God in a vermillion sunset or a mystical forest glade than in a pile of rocks. If God is everywhere, it is easy to reach the conclusion that God is nowhere. By nature, man needs markers to designate the holy, to separate the sacred from the secular. That is why God provided the Tabernacle, the Temple, and the Ark of the Covenant, for the early Hebrews. In the same spirit, Christians have built beautiful churches and other places of worship.

Pagans use a knife, an athame, to demarcate sacred space for their rituals. Hindus make the outside of their temples look like mountains, and the inside resemble caves, to communicate the spiritual power of nature and the heart of the earth.  Muslims cover mosques in beautiful and inspirational calligraphy from the Koran to tell the Faithful that the place they are in is special.

Medieval cathedrals are masterpieces, using light, sculpture, and architecture to communicate the knowledge and glory of God. The acoustics amplify and enrich the chants and psalms of the monk choir. Whether a Scandinavian stave church or a cathedral, the house of worship in Medieval Europe was the most magnificent place in the village and region.  People therein gained knowledge and had experiences denied to those outside. They had real spiritual power from the place they inhabited.

Power of Time

In Genesis, we learn that God rested on the seventh day of creation, making that day holy. In Exodus He commands Moses to set aside the seventh day for the people, keeping the Sabbath holy. Jesus clarified but reinforced God’s requirement for a Sabbath rest. God created and is present in every moment, and every day is holy to Him, but He has specifically set apart one day per week as sacred.

To gain spiritual power from the power of time, Christians today must observe one Holy Day (Sabbath) per week, often Sunday, depending upon one’s culture. Holy Days are for rest, for worship, for Bible Study, for family, and for fellowship with other believers. The Sabbath is not for work, for shopping, or for fighting. It is certainly not for sin.

The weekly Holy Day (Sabbath) is not the only source of spiritual power in time. God commanded Israel to observe annual feasts at Passover (spring) and Tabernacles (fall) to give the Hebrews time to remember Him. Likewise, Christians have Lent, Easter, Advent, Christmas, and many additional times in the Church Year. If we want spiritual power, we will learn about these events and celebrate them with friends and family.

Other times are also sacred in human lives. Birth is a celebration of a great gift of God. It is not purely a biological event, but a cosmological event. The coming of a child, every child, has eternal, not just temporal, significance. Children are more than merely an expense, in time and treasure, to their families and others. Many religions and cultures celebrate rites of passage, such as a Bar Mitzvah, commemorating a boy’s passage into manhood. Christians could do the same. These are important times to define and cement God’s role in the life of a young man. Women have similar rituals, such as the Latin Quinceanera. Marriage is a sacred event, with God uniting the lives of a man and a woman. The ceremony should have profound spiritual power; an experience with the Lord that none present will ever forget. Retirement marks an important transition and must be celebrated. Death is the moment where the living touch the dead; where man touches eternity. It is the inevitable future of us all, and begs the question of where our afterlife will be. A funeral, therefore, is another sacred time in a person’s life, and can be a source of great spiritual power.

People with the most spiritual power set aside time daily, often in the morning, to encounter God. They pray and study the Bible, but primarily they simply exist in the presence of God, communing with the one that they love the most.

Conclusion

My patients are often desperate; if I cannot help them, they feel that they have no other place to go. Many are right, as my practice includes many of the most impoverished people in Memphis. A huge percentage suffer from terminal illness, substance abuse, gang violence, and serious mental disease. A large minority are homeless, without adequate food or transportation. Their needs often seem far greater than my resources. To help them, I need power, but medical power is not enough. I need the power of the Almighty – spiritual power – to make a difference in these lives.

Challenges like this force us to question our assumptions, and I have found that some things that I believed about power stem more from modern secularism than from the Bible, and more from the Enlightenment than from Christianity.

All power comes from God, and all glory returns to Him, but He gives power to us for His purposes. Power comes in many forms, some conferred and therefore easily revocable by others, and some more intrinsic to the individual. Some people have more power than others, whether we like it or not, but everyone has some. Spiritual power is found in persons, and to a lesser extent in places and spaces. People can and should develop their own spiritual power, and rely on others to help them in these endeavors.

[1] http://www.soulshepherding.org/2012/07/spiritual-disciplines-list/

Living While Dead

Our church regularly performs Infant Dedication, a ceremony in which the parents dedicate themselves publicly to raise their child as a Christian and the congregation dedicates itself to supporting the parents in this holy work. Parents choose a special verse for their child, one intended to guide them in the ways of Christ through their lives. Psalm 23:1, Jeremiah 29:11, John 3:16, and Philippians 4:13 are popular.

This is a difficult time for our family, with me retiring from active duty in the US Army and us relocating to a new state. Our friends face conflict; one father berating himself for being chronically impatient with his children and another for spending so little time with his. Several couples have become empty nesters in the past few years, and miss their children painfully. Many friends have reached middle age, doubt that their current work is meaningful, and don’t know what to do in the second half of their career. Perhaps a long forgotten baby dedication verse would give us all hope…and peace.

We all struggle with who we are, and with finding our place in the world. A young lady in my employ yesterday told me that she doesn’t need validation, but of course she does; we all do. Another explains and defends herself with almost every other phrase. Many people are emotionally crushed by the slightest insult, and others react angrily to the smallest correction. Relationships rupture over words spoken harshly or misunderstood. We delude ourselves into thinking that we are independent, and that we want to be. Too often we go through life alone.

The fires of our ambition consume our youth, our marriage, and our children’s most tender years, leaving us sitting alone in dark rooms with the walls covered in long forgotten accolades. The frost of our greed freezes our compassion into the ice of indifference, leaving us using people to get things rather than using things to bless people.  My uncle is selling the family business, one which has lasted for generations. He said that over the years he has spent a lot of time building it; too much time.

I do not know if I was ever formally dedicated as a baby, and certainly don’t know the verse if I was. If I could go back in time and select my own Infant Dedication verse, it would be Galatians 2:20.

“I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.”

This verse describes a progression; first Paul is crucified with Christ, then he is raised with Christ to live the life of Christ on this earth. In light of this truth, how should Christians live?

The Dead have no future, but Christ entrusts His future into the hands of the Father

When we are crucified with Christ, we give up all of our hopes and dreams for the future. We walk with Him, learning to follow His lead, and eventually He begins to reveal our future to us. He never gives us the whole picture at once, but divulges a little bit at a time, just enough for us to take the next step. God’s word is a lamp to us (Psalm 119:105), but ancient lamps are not like modern flashlights; they only illuminate a few feet ahead. With each step forward in faith, we see the next step.

What we find is that the God who made us gives us a better future than we had hoped for, but shorn of the poor priorities and sinful desires. If we delight in Him, He will give us the desires of our heart (Psalms 37:4). The Lord will not honor selfishness and ingratitude, but His plans will be full of excitement, fellowship, work, and love. We will suffer, but we will prevail. God gives us a future far more wonderful than anything we could have imagined. Fully following Jesus is the greatest adventure.

The Dead don’t struggle with who they are, but Christ knows who He is, the Son of God.

There are two reasons for Christians not to struggle with our identity; we are dead to sin and self, and we are sons of God. Charles Spurgeon famously said,

“Brother, if any man thinks ill of you, do not be angry with him; for you are worse than he thinks you to be. If he charges you falsely on some point, yet be satisfied, for if he knew you better he might change the accusation, and you would be no gainer by the correction. If you have your moral portrait painted, and it is ugly, be satisfied; for it only needs a few blacker touches, and it would be still nearer the truth.[1]

The natural man is morally impoverished; unwilling to seek God and unable to be righteous (Romans 3:10-11). Every part of the moral nature of unregenerate man is corrupt. Never believe that man is inherently good; always understand that he is evil. Our disease is so bad that death to sin and self is the only cure, and so we are crucified with Christ. If we are dead to ourselves, why do we struggle with our identity? Does a corpse struggle with who he is? Do the dead try to make themselves look good to those around?

When we are raised with Christ, we receive His Spirit. Whatever goodness we think we have is not the point; Jesus’ goodness is what matters. The Son was morally perfect. His validation derived from the promises of Scripture and from the love of the Father and Holy Spirit, and our validation comes from the same place. We love others as Jesus loved them, but as His trust was not in men, neither is ours. Jesus’ love, His joy, His peace, His patience, His kindness, His goodness, His faithfulness, His gentleness, and His self-control become ours (Galatians 5:22-23).

Despite the Spirit of Christ in us, we continue to sin, both by both omission and commission. Paul describes this pitiful state in Romans 7; sin is so organic to us that we cannot shake it on this side of heaven. Nevertheless, since we are crucified with Christ, the hold of sin on our hearts weakens and one day we will be forever free. We need not struggle with our identity because we gain His identity. Day by day Jesus makes us more like Him (Philippians 2:12).

Dead men don’t have ambition, and Christ’s only ambition is the will of the Father

Dead men no longer want the praise of men; they no longer wish to be in the history books. Napoleon said that “glory is fleeting, but obscurity is forever”, and that is the mantra of modern man. If there is no eternal life, earthly fame is indeed fleeting, but it is also meaningless. Glory has no benefit over obscurity if the end of both is the grave. If there is eternal life, goodness and not fame is what matters. And we know that there is eternal life.

Our dreams of personal glory must die when we are crucified with Christ. They must be replaced with dreams of God’s glory and obedience to Him. Our desperate striving to be better than everyone else, or at least feel ourselves equal to everyone else, give way to a burning desire to discover how good God is, and to share Him with others. The Creator is the ground of all reality; the root from which all else grows. The universe and everything in it are utterly dependent upon Him. All beauty, power, and goodness in the cosmos emanate directly from the Lord. He is worthy of an eternity of praise and a thousand lifetimes of study. The ambition of the Christian is to become like Him.

During His earthly walk, Christ’s ambition was to perfectly follow the Father, thinking, saying, and doing everything that He asked so that the Father would be glorified. The Christian has the same ambition. Some people will accomplish this as kings and presidents, others as cab drivers and secretaries, and still others as soldiers and doctors. Most people will glorify God as moms and dads. No role is better than any other; obedience is what counts. The lies that money, fame, and power are proper goals, that we should always be striving for more, and that one man can be better than another sucks days from our lives and life from our days.

Ultimately, God gives His people something far better than history books, in which other men decide the measure of each life, and which few people read. He gives us eternal life. In eternity, people won’t need to read about us; we can tell them our story ourselves.

Dead men don’t need stuff, and Christ only had the stuff that He needed to accomplish His mission

“You can’t take it with you”, “You are born with nothing; you die with nothing”, “naked you came from your mother’s womb and naked you shall return (Job 1:21)” are only three of the many ways of saying that in eternity, possessions don’t matter. Yet we buy more and more, filling our homes and emptying our wallets in the vain pursuit of happiness from things. When our homes overflow, we rent storage units and buy bigger houses for furniture, clothes, toys, computers, and hundreds of other things that we rarely use. Life is made of time, yet we spend time paying for our stuff, cleaning our stuff, moving our stuff, and storing our stuff. We break relationships when people misuse our stuff, and feel superior to others because we have more stuff. We are no different than the rich fool; one day while we are building bigger barns, our souls will be required of us (Luke 12:16-20). We think that we own our stuff, but in truth, our stuff owns us.

To crucified with Christ is to lose all of your stuff, and to be raised with Him is to live free from slavery to possessions. Like all material beings, Jesus needed material things to live on earth. But He only had what He truly needed to accomplish His Father’s mission. Jesus spent time with people, not things. To be crucified with Christ is to do the same.

Are you moving to a new location? Don’t sell stuff; give it away. Are you shopping for something new to make you feel better? Leave the mall and take a walk in a park instead. Did water damage ruin the stuff in a storage unit that you haven’t opened in years? Thank God for freeing you from those possessions.

Conclusion

The Lord is our Shepherd, God has wonderful plans for us, God loves us, and we can do all things through Christ. All those verses contain beautiful promises suitable to start a young life. But Christians young and old are also crucified with Christ, and He is living His life in us. If we understand these truths; if we live while dead, we will be more like Him forever. That is the most beautiful promise of all.

[1] David Dancing Before the Ark Because of His Election, http://www.spurgeon.org/sermons/2031.php

Encountering God

When children are young, their world is little bigger than their neighborhood; their home, their school, their friends’ houses, and their church. When people reach young adulthood, their world expands, perhaps even to encompass the whole globe. Slowly though, muscles weaken and eyes get foggy. Women lose their ability to conceive, and hair grays. At those moments, pensive people begin to truly understand that though the world will not leave them, they will leave the world. While little children anchor themselves in their parents and young adults in career and family, the aged realize that these anchors will not hold.

Thoughtful people realize that no temporal anchor – job, family, wealth – will hold through the storms of old age and death. The only anchor that can hold the ship of a man’s life steady in these tempests is God’s Word, Jesus Christ (John 1:1). He is the Rock of Ages that can shelter our souls against the storm (Isaiah 26:4). We will find refuge only under His wings (Psalm 91:4).

But how can we know God? We must encounter Him. A lifetime of experiencing His faithfulness will enable us to trust Him for the next life. This article will describe how Christians can encounter God regularly.

Background

Matthew 5-7 highlights one of Jesus’ most famous sermons, the Sermon on the Mount. He begins chapter 5 with the Beatitudes (Blessed are the …), discusses the role of His followers in the world (salt and light), and ends with a discourse on what it means to be perfect in the eyes of the Father. In Chapter 7, the Lord warns His listeners to judge only as God Himself judges, encourages them to good actions, and concludes telling the crowd to build their lives on His teachings as a wise man would build his house upon a rock.

Nestled between is chapter 6, beginning with an admonition against hypocrisy, a lesson on prayer, and a summary of trusting in God. Another look, however, reveals that Matthew 6 tells listeners (and in our case, readers) how to encounter God. Four things about experiencing the Lord are evident from verses 1-18:

  1. We must want to encounter Him.
  2. We must know how to encounter Him.
  3. We must engage our whole selves in encountering Him – physically, personally, and with others.

Keeping these three themes in mind, let us discover how to encounter the God of Creation, the Lover of Our Souls.

We must want to encounter Him.

By nature, man does not want to encounter the real God. We want to find power, knowledge, and beauty, but we are terrified by the blinding purity and the overwhelming holiness of the Lord of the Universe. Our finitude, our mortality, and our love of evil – though we don’t consider our private, favorite sins to be evil – make us afraid and ashamed in His presence. Being face to face with God is a little like being face to face with a deathless angel, a lender to whom we owe millions, and a policeman who has just caught us burning down a house.

Far from being a path to God, most of the religions of the world are attempts to escape the truth about ourselves and our Maker. We pretend that we can put God into our debt by doing good works, when actually every part of our moral nature is corrupt and we are incapable of good works; deeds that share the goodness of God. We pretend that our religious rituals and offerings can force God to act in accordance with our will when in truth our duty is to do His will. We act like we know what is best for ourselves and others, while in reality over the course of our lives, our desires change like the wind. If we finally realize these facts about our nature, we deny that a personal God exists and pretend that we can reach Enlightenment, attaining a state of bliss, by our own efforts.

Jesus described this problem in Matthew 6. The hypocrites (ὑποκριτής hypokritēs – pretender, false face) wanted to convince onlookers that they performed their “good deeds” for God and others, when they actually performed them to glorify themselves before man. They received what they sought – other people were impressed. We do the same thing, both with “religious” and with other actions:

  1. We make money to meet our physical needs, but beyond this we make money to glorify ourselves in the eyes of others (“keeping up with the Joneses”).
  2. We accomplish goals to make money and to do things that we consider “good” for ourselves and others. Often, however, we do so to feel better than our compatriots, to gain their approval, and to “earn ourselves a place in history.
  3. I sometimes make the same mistake. I have a New Testament in English, Spanish, German, French, Russian, and Arabic. Sometimes I read this New Testament to learn languages, not to discover God.

When Jesus says “thy Father will reward thee openly”, He was not talking about money, fame, or power on earth or even “jewels in your crown” in heaven. The Father is the Rewarder and He is also the Reward. God will give more of Himself to those who love and obey Him. To perform any act for any reason other than the glory, enjoyment, and love of God, and secondarily for the benefit of others, is to seek the glory of men. It is also to seek a reward other than the Rewarder. People who do these things do not really want to encounter God, and they will get their wish.

We must know how to encounter Him

Mystics, whether Hindus, Buddhists, Sufis, practitioners of Kabbalah, or others, often chant phrases over and over again. These chants do not need to make literary sense in any language, because the mystic hopes that the tone and rhythm will lead to an ecstatic experience; one that overwhelms the body with emotion and a sense of the numinous. The mind, and certainly not reason or logic, is often not involved beyond executing the chant. While there is nothing inherently wrong with chanting, Jesus taught that mere repetition of words does not avail to speak with God. Put another way, chanting, dancing, and other practices can be useful to worship, but vain repetition is not useful. The Lord taught a better way:

  1. Our Father – plural, as if praying in community to the powerful yet close and loving One with authority over us. Note that each member of the community is equal before Him.
  2. Which art in heaven – though He is close to us, He stands in authority over the whole universe.
  3. Hallowed by Thy name – a statement of how we must and will revere Him. It is “your name will be honored” rather than “I hope your name will be honored” or “will your name be honored?”
  4. Thy kingdom come – We want your authority, your protection, your sustenance, and your love upon us on this earth…
  5. Thy will be done – We want your will, not our own, to be done on earth…
  6. On earth as it is in heaven – Your kingdom and will are perfectly in place in heaven, we want them perfectly in place on earth, and they will be perfectly in place on earth.
  7. Give us this day our daily bread – Provide our material and spiritual needs today
  8. And forgive us our debts – We have failed to behave in accordance with your character, and therefore have become morally indebted to You.
  9. As we forgive our debtors – Others have sinned against us, and help us to forgive them as we have graciously been forgiven.
  10. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil – Protect us not from hardship but from sin.
  11. For Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever – not found in many manuscripts, this refers to the overarching glory of God.

Note a few other things about encountering God. The use of plural at the onset suggests that many people are praying together. Jesus’ example showed Him praying alone but also praying with others. Therefore we must strive to encounter God both alone and in groups of other believers. We are to honor God, ask for spiritual and physical needs, and consider the desires of ourselves and others.

We must engage our whole selves in encountering Him

Many Christians have a devotional time of prayer and Bible reading but nothing else. This is good, but to most effectively encounter God, we must do more. Consider what Jesus is telling His disciples to do, and how each act corresponds to a spiritual discipline:

  1. Acknowledge God (worship and celebration)
  2. Give to others (service)
  3. Go alone into a closet, a secret place (solitude and secrecy)
  4. Be silent (silence)
  5. Pray (prayer and meditation)
  6. Let the Word of God inform your prayer (study)
  7. Fast (fasting)
  8. Confess and be forgiven (confession)
  9. Forgive (sacrifice and submission)

The Spiritual Disciplines are traditional practices that Christians since the 1st century have used to discover God. In Matthew 6, Jesus is not only warning His followers against hypocrisy and teaching them to pray, He is describing what believers need to do to encounter God to the fullest.

We have seen how encountering God involves a personal devotional time and also involves others. This passage also suggests a physical component to encountering the Lord. Silence and fasting are both physical. Body position, whether kneeling, lying prostrate, or standing with uplifted arms, is physical. Mystics, charismatics, and others chant, dance, and do other physical actions to better feel God’s presence.

How might this apply to the modern day?

A man gets up early and goes alone with his Bible into his prayer closet (silence, secrecy, and solitude).There he confesses his known sins, receives forgiveness, and forgives others (confession, sacrifice, and service). Once his heart is clean, the man reads the Bible silently and meditates on what he has read (Bible study and meditation). He worships God through the passage and through what He has done for him over the past day, week, month, or year (worship and celebration). The man has fasted since dinner last night, or perhaps even since lunch the day before.

Every weekday morning the man runs or lifts weights alone for exercise. Rather than listening to music, he uses the time to reflect on creation, the person of God, and to seek help with life’s’ troubles. The rhythm of his heart beat, breathing, and foot striking the ground capture his attention. The exertion of exercise hinders linear, logical thought and so he listens better to the world around, his body within, and the Lord above.

Every evening the man assembles his family for prayers. Using lists of family, friends, associates, local, national and global prayer needs, he assigns topics for each person in his family. They discuss the prayer issues as a group and then pray, each person sitting up or kneeling so no one falls asleep.

Conclusion

Life is hard; too hard to be anchored in people, things, or any other temporal creation. God the Son, Jesus Christ, anchors our souls in the stormy seas of existence, and He hides our hearts in the cleft of His rock. To anchor in Him, we must experience Him over and over again. We must want to encounter Him, know how to encounter Him, and encounter Him with our whole self; our bodies, our minds, and those around us. Only then will we anchor ourselves securely forevermore.

When Obedience Doesn’t Seem to Make Sense

The air in southern Belize was hot and sticky as I saw Maya and Garifuna villagers in my jungle clinic in June and July of 1987.  Having only a stethoscope, some donated medications, the books Where There is No Doctor and Merck Manual, an undergraduate biology degree, and a little experience, I had come to Belize before medical school as a volunteer with Central American Outreach Ministries (CAOM). Dozens of patients lined up for care before breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and in between we farmed the banana plantation and orange tree nursery, fed chickens and pigs, took eggs, pumped water, and built a new clinic. John Collier was the founder of CAOM, and he worked on the ranch with two long term volunteers, a man and a woman in their late 20s. The four of us hosted a volunteer team from West Virginia. Once per week we took a side trip, hiking to the ruins of a Mayan temple, swimming in a jungle pool, or relaxing on the Belizean beach near Dangriga.

John Collier had been a successful builder and pilot when he was nearly killed in his company plane. During the emergency John had promised God to sell his business and become a missionary if He would save him. God did, and John was faced with the prospect of redirecting his life. The change was painful, and in many ways did not seem to make sense, as John had been active in church and supported other missionaries. Nonetheless, he kept his promise and CAOM was born. When John Collier died on 17 June 2016, he had served forty years in Belize, hosted over 400 missions teams, built a ranch, a mission house, a hotel, and dozens of other projects, and introduced thousands of people to Jesus Christ.

God often calls His people to do things that don’t seem to make sense. We plan our future according to what we think will make us financially successful, safe, and comfortable. Using the limited information at our disposal, we make what seem to be the logical choices, or at least those choices that we like the most and can justify to ourselves, our families, and our friends.  The Bible has many stories of people who obeyed God even though it did not seem to make sense, and we will review one such incident today. Our question will be, “How can we obey God even when obeying Him does not seem to make sense?” For a change of pace, we will use an equation for our answer.

Background (1 Samuel 26)

Saul was king of Israel, but had failed to obey God, and so the Lord ordered the prophet Samuel to anoint David as king. Saul discovered this rival and spent years hunting for him in the Judean wilderness. David gathered a band of about 600 men around him and managed to elude Saul’s army while providing protection for local ranchers (1 Samuel 25). David spared Saul’s life (1 Samuel 24), and Saul temporarily withdrew his pursuers, but a tip from some locals in the Wilderness of Ziph induced Saul to chase David again.

King Saul personally led an army of 3,000 chosen soldiers into the rugged, desert mountains of southeastern Judea. One night, while the king slept surrounded by his army and their general, Abner, David and his companion Abishai snuck into their camp. They passed the sleeping watchmen and wound their way through the bodyguard. Coming to Saul, Abishai offered to slay the sleeping regent. He believed that the Lord Himself had given David the permission and the opportunity to slay his enemy.

David, however, refused. He would not assassinate Saul, the Lord’s anointed, even though Saul had rejected God and was trying to kill David. Instead, the two took evidence that they had been there, Saul’s spear and water jug, and escaped. Just before dawn and from a safe distance, David announced to Abner and Saul what he had done. He produced proof, the spear and the jug. Saul, chastened by David’s courage and skill, returned to Jerusalem.

The Equation

Courage + History of Obedience + Facts/Emotions + Knowing God’s Character + Wisdom about Human Nature = Obedience

With this equation as our guide, let us consider this story and see how David obeyed God by not killing Saul even when sparing his life did not seem to make sense.

Courage

Except for certain of the Ziphites, David was popular among the people of the area. He had treated them fairly in the past, was a skilled leader and mighty warrior, and thus had legitimacy as a ruler. David’s spies told him that Saul was personally leading this army, and good reconnaissance showed him where Saul was physically located in camp. At this point, most other leaders would send a team into the enemy camp to kill the king. Doing so would protect David from harm, but also remove his ability to control the team’s actions once they got to Saul. It might be a sign of wisdom to his followers, but it certainly would not be a sign of courage. Instead of sending someone else, David asked for a single volunteer to accompany him. The man who had the most to lose was going to handle this most dangerous mission himself. Imagine what his men must have felt.

How often do we fail to obey God for want of courage? How often do we fear to follow and then justify our fear with a list of “logical” reasons for disobedience? We justify inaction because we feel that we don’t know the will of God. We want a detailed map and timeline of how God plans to work in our lives, and we want to know the outcome before we begin. The Lord never works this way; He only gives us enough information to take the next step.

History of Obedience

Obedience to God is a habit – the more we obey, the easier it is to obey in the future. Also, the more we obey in the little things, the easier it is to obey in the bigger things. The converse is also true. David obeyed God when caring for sheep, when facing Goliath, when playing music for Saul, and when he could have killed Saul in a similar situation. David’s pattern of lifelong, albeit imperfect, obedience enabled him to again spare Saul’s life in this most trying of circumstances.

No man obeys the Lord flawlessly; few men consciously try. But those who continually practice the presence of God, asking Him what to do in common situations, listening, and obeying, reap a rich reward. Such men learn to know God, which is the ultimate blessing, and to obey Him. Those who have no history of obedience should not be surprised when they falter at challenges, and when they fail to obey, in the future.

Do we have a history of obedience? Do we speak to God while waiting in line or sitting at a stop light, asking Him what to do next? Do we go to Him in prayer for guidance? Do we wait to receive an answer? Do we recognize the answers that He provides? Do we obey when He tells us what to do?

Facts over Emotions

When David’s friend Abishai stood over Saul ready to strike him down, David was excited. Saul had pursued David and his men for years, and David wanted his adversary dead. He knew that God had allowed him to sneak unmolested into camp, and that God had anointed him king. David did not even have to personally dispatch Saul, his tormentor. Abishai would do it. Many men would have let Abishai kill Saul, and if public opinion had gone against them, would have denied giving permission and executed Abishai. There were plausible ways that David could have justified killing Saul, and he really wanted to.

Despite these emotions, David also knew some important facts. No matter how misguided he had become, Saul had been anointed as king of Israel by God. To murder the king in his sleep had serious consequences:

  1. Killing a sleeping man could not be considered honorable, much less heroic.
  2. Saul still had legitimacy in the eyes of many of the people, especially the ten northern Hebrew tribes. Even after Saul’s death by the hand of the Philistines, it took David years to win the support of these people. After Solomon’s reign, the House of David lost the ten northern tribes forever. Had he assassinated Saul, David probably would never have received their backing.
  3. David was considered a brigand. The people of Keilah, Nabal, and the Ziphites were among many who opposed him, and his own band of men included some unsavory characters (1 Samuel 22:2).
  4. Allowing Abishai to kill Saul, and later denying involvement and killing Abishai, would not have protected David in the court of public opinion. Such pitiful leadership may be acceptable to politicians today, but was not in ancient Israel.
  5. David’s anointing several years before had been secret, and even now few people knew of it. He had no prophetic legitimacy, and Samuel was dead.
  6. To have killed the king would have set a precedent in Israelite life, and David’s own life would have been in danger.

David had spent many hours thinking of all of these facts. With Saul’s life in his hands, David overcame his emotions and obeyed God. Do we practice putting facts over emotions? Do we control our emotions, or do we let our emotions run away with us? God’s people feel emotion, they do not deny them, but they always subordinate their emotions to their godly will.

Knowing God’s Character

David did not know how God would make him king. In fact, soon after this episode, David became depressed, despaired of his life, and fled to the Philistines (1 Samuel 27:1-4). This was a desperate move because living among these implacable enemies of Israel would harm David’s standing in the eyes of his own people. He and his men lived a double life, always in danger of being discovered by the Philistines and of being rejected by the Hebrews. From his little room in Gath, David would hardly have been human if he had not second guessed his decision to spare Saul that night in Hachilah.

Nonetheless, David knew God. The Ten Commandments forbade murder and the Law taught that God alone would chose Israel’s king (Deuteronomy 17:14-20). David had experienced the heart of God throughout his life, and this knowledge prevented him from killing Saul. David valued a clean conscience and a pure heart; he could not abide guilt before God (Psalm 51).

Do we know God’s character? Do we know what the Bible says about similar situations to those we face? Have we meditated on His word so that we feel what He feels in a given situation, at least sometimes? Do we fear guilt before God more than anything else? Do we strive to keep a clean conscience and a pure heart, even if it costs us trouble?

Wisdom about Human Nature

Standing undetected over the sleeping King Saul, David and Abishai had three options:

  1. Killing him
  2. Leaving him alive, but doing nothing else. They would have had trouble convincing their own men that they could have killed the king, and the lesson that David needed to make about respecting the life of the Lord’s anointed would have been lost. They could never have convinced Saul’s army that they spared his life. Their mission would probably have been considered a failure.
  3. Leaving him alive, but taking evidence that they had been there. This diminished Abner’s stature, as well as those of his guards, while raising that of David and his men. No mere brigand would have spared Saul’s life.

A shrewd judge of human nature, David took Saul’s water jug and spear, two items that would have been distinctive to the king. No one could say that he had stolen someone else’ equipment, and no one in the army could have escaped censure for not protecting their king.

Are we wise in the ways of human nature? Do we think carefully about what we wish to do and why?

Conclusion

Christians are commanded to obey God, whether or not such obedience makes sense given our limited information and inadequate powers of reason. David was faced with such a situation, and he obeyed.  The following equation can help us remember how to obey when obedience doesn’t seem to make sense.

Courage + History of Obedience + Facts/Emotions + Knowing God’s Character + Wisdom about Human Nature = Obedience

Talking points, rules of thumb, and even “equations” are easy to understand but hard to practice. The Lord commands His people to obey, and if we had perfect knowledge, there is nothing else that we would rather do. It is up to us to do the things that we have learned here.

The Anointing

Tim was retiring from the US Air Force and moving out of the national capital area. He had had a stellar career and had been seeking civilian work. He showed great confidence in the future, but as the weeks passed, worry crept into his face. Tim, his wife and daughters moved out of their rental house and moved in with extended family, but several job opportunities had faded away.

They visited with us after Vacation Bible School one afternoon, as we were going through the same transition. As Tim and his family were leaving, my family gathered around to lay hands on them and pray. We prayed for their journey to Texas, their search for a new house, their transition to new schools, a new church, and a new community, and most of all, for a job. Once we finished, I turned to Tim and said “Congratulations, you have received the anointing of the Spirit for this task in your life. You will be successful.”

Tim gave me a quizzical look. As we said goodbye, it occurred to me that he may not have heard about the anointing of the Lord. Many people who have heard do not understand it. This article will discuss the anointing of the Lord.

Background

In 1 Samuel 16, Saul had been the king of Israel for about 20 years. He had been rejected by God as king, but remained on the throne until the timing of the Lord was complete. Samuel had anointed Saul (1 Samuel 9:16, 10:1) and mourned the condemnation of his reign (1 Samuel 16:1). God was ready to move on, and told Samuel to anoint a new king. Samuel rightly considered that act treason, and God directed a subterfuge to prevent his execution (the morality of that act is outside the scope of this article).

On arriving at the house of Jesse, Samuel examined Jesse’s sons and thought to anoint Eliab, the eldest. Eliab was handsome, strong, and old enough that he could assume the throne quickly; as Samuel naturally expected that since God wanted a new king anointed, He would put a quick end to Saul. Instead, the Lord waited 15-20 years to install David as king, and the whole time Samuel’s life was in danger if the king discovered what he had done. At the command of God, Samuel rejected all of Jesse’s sons except the youngest, David. Samuel anointed him, and the Holy Spirit came upon him. At the same time, the Holy Spirit left Saul.

The Purpose of the Anointing

While we may focus on anointing with oil and laying on hands, the real anointing is with the Holy Spirit. A man who receives an anointing but fails to gain the Holy Spirit gains nothing, while a man who receives the Holy Spirit, regardless of how the anointing is performed, gains everything. Most religions have anointing rituals, purifying rituals, healing rituals, and other rituals. But such rituals are powerless without the work of the Holy Spirit.

Having established that real anointing can only be done with the Spirit of God, we must understand that the first anointing is for salvation; God wants to put people in right relationship to Him. This anointing is available for everyone, although some will refuse. David was already a fervent follower of Jehovah before Samuel broke the flask of oil and laid hands on him.

In the second anointing, the Lord anoints people to perform a certain task; to accomplish His mission for that individual in that time and place. Samuel anointed Saul to be king, and later anointed David for the same role. Jesus was the ultimate “anointed one” (Luke 4:18-21), and He only did what His Father told Him to do (John 5:19, 8:28).

God offers the second anointing to all His followers, but He chooses the task assigned to each person. Saul and David were chosen as king, while the disciples and Paul in the New Testament were chosen as evangelist. No one gets to pick his own role, and we get into terrible trouble when we try to do a role assigned to someone else, or get resentful in the role that the Lord has given us.

Some do not want the second anointing at all, because their lives are focused on pleasure, ease, and affluence, or because they reject their unique task. David could have had a quiet life in the family business had he not received the anointing. Paul could have remained a respected and wealthy Pharisee.

The Pathway of the Anointing

God always anoints His chosen workers through other people. Samuel was the vehicle for Saul and David, while the Apostles were the vehicle for the Samaritans (Acts 8:14-17). Oil is not required, but laying on hands often is (James 5:14-18). Elijah anointed his successor, Elisha, and Ananias anointed his erstwhile enemy, Saul of Tarsus. I received the anointing of the Lord for salvation through my parents, and the anointing for ministry through the hands of men like Richard Harding, Reid Jepson, and Mike Woods.

The obvious corollary is that no man receives the anointing alone. Those who stay home from church or avoid gatherings of believers cannot receive the anointing. It is not enough to watch preachers on television or listen to sermons while driving to work. The Christian life is the life of community, and no one living out of the community can fully participate in the work of the Lord.

The Prerequisites of the Anointing

People seek outward signs to determine what to do since we cannot see into the hearts of men. The Lord knows each man better than he knows himself, however, and chooses those who hearts are totally His (2 Chronicles 16:9). Moses and David were used mightily because they were dedicated mightily to their Creator.

At times, however, God uses His people to anoint evil men. Elijah anointed Jehu (1 Kings 19:16, 2 Kings 9:1-6) as leader of Israel, even though he was wicked (2 Kings 10:31). Elisha anointed Hazael to be King of Syria even though the prophet foresaw that he would cause great grieving in Israel (1 Kings 19:15, 2 Kings 8:7-15).

The Power of the Anointing

People commonly assume that power derives from position, whereas in reality power comes from the individual. By anointing David, Samuel promised him that someday God would make him king. David would eventually get the power inherent in the position of king, but not until the Holy Spirit had made him into a man who could wield that power in accordance with the will of the Almighty. David played for Saul, defeated Goliath, befriended Jonathan, killed Philistines, and moved men all with the power of the Spirit. He became king in his character long before becoming king on the throne.

Moises Naim’s 2014 book The End of Power described how traditional centers of power in the world, such as businesses, armies, governments, and religious institutions, are losing their power to influence people. He writes “in the 21st century, power is easier to get, harder to use – and easier to lose.” A new egalitarianism is sweeping the world and self-determination to the point of anarchy, and gridlock, is at hand.

The End of Power makes many good points, but misses the greatest point of all. God has all power, and His power has not changed. He gives power to those who follow Him through the Holy Spirit, and He gives them exactly enough to accomplish His mission for them. What was true in 2016 B.C. remains true in 2016 A.D. Power does not come, and has never come, from other people or circumstances…it comes only from Him.

But how does the anointing actually work? Movies like Harry Potter (and Star Wars) suggest that magicians (and Jedi) have access to an impersonal universal power. In reality, the only universal power is personal, and He is God. Christians have access to God, but instead of using Him to accomplish our purposes as a magician might try to do, He uses us to accomplish His purposes. The anointing also affects other people. Let us consider how the anointing with the Holy Spirit changes things

  1. Effect on us – When the Spirit of God indwells us, it makes us more like Him. We gain His heart and His understanding and our works align with His will. We learn what He wants for us, and become more focused in our lives. David would never have dreamed that he could actually be king of Israel, but once God chose him, he focused his efforts to this end.
  2. Effect on others – When Samuel anointed David, everyone who knew of it was forced to make a decision: support David against Saul, or support Saul against David. The anointing will galvanize people for you, to help you in God’s mission with prayer, money, emotional support, and any other way they can. It will also galvanize people against you.
  3. Effect on God – When the Holy Spirit, who Himself is God, is active in a man’s heart through the anointing, the man becomes more like the Lord, and the Lord is more likely to heed the prayer of and bless the efforts of the man.

All of these factors make the anointed one more successful in what he or she does. Thus the anointing has power, real power, for those who believe.

Conclusion

My friend is a Christian and has had the Holy Spirit in him since he accepted Christ. My family and I anointed him and his family, not giving him the baptism of the Spirit but strengthening the work of the Spirit within him. Tim’s purpose is good, his pathway is sound, his prerequisites are faithful to the Lord. As a result, he has power to accomplish God’s purpose in this phase of his life. The Lord’s timing is not ours and sometimes we must wait much longer than we wish to get what we want. But Tim has more of the power of the Holy Spirit now than before; the only power that actually matters.

 

Understanding Authority

The US Founding Father Benjamin Franklin is alleged to have said “It is the first responsibility of every citizen to question authority.” Whether he said this or not, the idea of questioning authority has woven itself into the DNA of American culture. But the idea of questioning authority is not new; indeed, it is as old as man. Since the serpent convinced Eve to question God’s authority in the Garden of Eden, sinful man has questioned authority. Even more, we have an inherent dislike of it. The idea that anyone or anything should be “over” us in some way is anathema to man, especially individualistic Americans.

Before we continue, we must define our terms. For our purposes, “to question” will be “to ask” or even “to challenge” authority but not to automatically reject it. We will define “authority” as “the power to give orders or make decisions: the power or right to direct or control someone or something.”[1] Note that authority is not the same as power. Power is simple ability, while authority is ability plus legitimacy. A man holding a gun may have the power to take your money, but he doesn’t have the authority to do so. A tax collector in a democratic government has both the power and the legitimacy, hence the authority, to take your money.

The Bible claims to be an authority in its own right and makes many statements about authority. Matthew 8:5-13 contains one of the most fascinating stories in the Bible. A centurion, a young Roman officer roughly equivalent to a company commander in the modern US Army, had a sick servant. He came to Jesus and asked Him to heal the man. When Jesus offered to go to his house to do so, the centurion refused and replied “Lord, I know how authority works. I am not worthy to have you come to me. Just say the word and my servant will be healed.” Jesus was amazed at the centurion’s faith, a reaction He had to no one else in Scripture. This young Roman leader understood authority, and he knew that Jesus had it.

This article will discuss where authority comes from, how we know when someone has authority, how to respond to authority, and how to wield authority.

The Source of Authority

All authority comes from God. He is the Creator and Sustainer of the Universe, and His nature forms the informational and moral basis for existence. He is the Supreme Power and the Ultimate Authority. It really cannot be any other way. Christians understand that the second person of the Godhead, Jesus Christ, has all authority (Matthew 28:18-20). Judging by the texts of the two documents, the Framers of the US Declaration of Independence[2] understood this but the Framers of the Declaration of the Rights of Man[3] apparently did not. The results of this were clear to see – the American Revolution ended in the world’s first constitutional democracy, the “last, best hope of mankind.[4]” The French Revolution ended in the First Republic (1792-1799) and the Napoleonic Empire (1799-1815), during which millions were slaughtered.

God gives authority to man. In one of the first acts of creation, He commanded Adam and Eve to rule over the earth and to take care of it (Genesis 1:27-28, 2:15, 9:2-3). The Lord also ordains governments to regulate the affairs of men (Leviticus, 1 Samuel 9:16-17, 16:1-13, Romans 13:1-7). Governments in Biblical times were generally despotic, benevolent or not, but God’s authority is not limited by the form of government. He exalts and humbles leaders in democratic governments as well. The same goes for businesses and all other organizations; authority is given by the Holy One (John 19:11).

The Lord gives authority to man in three ways. First, God’s authority is fundamentally based in His character, and so God gives man authority by transforming his character to be more like His. The character of the Holy One is marked by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23), and so shall be the character of the man or woman to whom He has given real authority. It is an active process, with God and the person working in tandem (Philippians 2:12-13). Godly character is the foundation of all real authority.

Second, the Lord gives authority to man by helping him or her to do things in fulfillment of His will. He teaches doctors to heal, lawyers to argue, leaders to speak, pilots to fly, and businessmen to negotiate. God gives fathers the ability to protect their families, and mothers the ability to nurture them. The list is as endless as the Lord’s will is broad, from artists reflecting beauty to zookeepers tending animals. God has commanded us to keep the earth as a gardener tends her beloved garden, so He gives us the power and legitimacy, the authority, to keep His commands. Knowledge and experience are primary ways that the Lord confers these abilities.

Third, the Lord gives authority to man by providing resources. He gives most people enough money to survive, and to some He provides great wealth. God gives most people positions in the family, the tribe, the business or the government where they can command enough resources to fulfill their purposes, and some He calls to be presidents, prime ministers or kings. To whom much is given, much is required (Luke 12:48).

One may object that many people use their authority for wicked purposes. This is as true as it is tragic, both for the person and for those harmed by their evil. This paper will not address theodicy, the problem of evil in the world. Nonetheless, what people do with the authority that they have been given has little to do with how they are given it. A person’s importance has nothing to do with his or her abilities, resources or position; a taxi driver who is fully in the will of God is more important in the eternal schema than a president who is outside.

One may argue that authority comes from the people, whether an army which is supporting a dictator or a voting bloc which is supporting a candidate. This argument is partly true but it is limited, because men and women help each other gain authority in far more than just governance. Mentors help men and women develop good character, teachers build knowledge and skills in their students, investors and customers provide money, and voters provide votes. This argument is also partly false because individual actions make the crucial difference between a champion and a ne’er do well. Men and women take what they have been given and transform their lives into gold, silver and precious stones or wood, hay and stubble (1 Corinthians 3:12). In a real sense, man creates his own authority. And behind it all is the sovereign grace and power of God.

Another problem with the position that people are the ultimate source of power is that this position mistakes recognizing authority with conferring authority. God is the one who gives a man the raw material (health, intelligence, etc.) with which he works and enables him to develop into who he becomes (intelligence, skills and character). These characteristics enable a man to “direct or control someone or something.” God confers authority. Other people recognize the man’s intelligence, skills and character, the real source of authority, the “power or right to direct or control someone or something.” But even if Man A fails to recognize Man B’s authority, that fact in no way diminishes Man B’s authority, because in the final analysis Man A didn’t give it to him…God did.

Jesus is the ultimate example. He is God incarnate, the rightful Ruler of the Universe. He possesses ultimate authority, and yet many of the people failed to recognize Him. That does not diminish His authority. It only eliminated the blessings that His doubters would have received by following Him.

There are many other examples. Moses had no votes, no army, and no money compared to Pharaoh’s awesome power, but who had the greater authority, whose work changed the course of history? Paul had none of these things compared to Emperor Nero, who had him beheaded. But Paul’s labors have lasted for millennia and Nero’s perished when he did. Augustine, Aquinas and Luther were neither kings nor princes, boasting of little wealth and station, but they tower in the annals of mankind. Even today, who had more eternal significance, Billy Graham or Pol Pot? People did not give these men the authority that they commanded…God did. At first, people did not even recognize the authority that God gave them, but that fact did not decrease their power. Sometimes the man who is passed over for a position, whether by jealously or fortune, holds the real authority.Remember, the things that we hold as most powerful, armies and nations, are little more than nothing in the eyes of God (Isaiah 40:15-17). He does not evaluate the world as we do (1 Samuel 16:7).

The best that people can do is to confer what authority they can wisely, in all of the ways mentioned above, and recognize that God, not man, is the ultimate source. In democratic governments, voters hopefully will choose the leaders with the greatest industry, skills, intelligence, and most importantly, character. They will thus select through the popular vote the leader that God, who wants the best for their nation, had chosen for them.

This truth does not negate the value of democracy but endorses it. The judgment of a godly people must be heeded. As hard as it can be to determine the will of the Almighty, the vote is the best way yet devised to choose leaders. It is better to have many people participate in selecting their government than just a few. Also, the separation of powers is the best way yet devised to limit the abuses of government.

Viewed from another angle, the German sociologist Max Weber identified three sources of authority. The first was rational-legal authority, such as a sergeant has over the privates in his squad. The second was traditional authority, such as that of a king over his country or a father over his family. The third was charismatic authority, such as that a religious leader claims God gave him over his followers. In actuality, God is the prime mover behind all of these types of power, using them for His purposes.

How do we know when someone has authority?

The first test of a man or woman’s authority is his or her character. God confers authority to all who will serve Him ably. Followers of Christ exhibit the “fruits of the Spirit” noted above, including love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). Those who seek leaders with God-given authority must look for these traits. Of the current American presidential candidates, the current front runners show the least fruit, which is probably an indictment of the American electorate, the media, or both.

The second test of someone’s authority is the results of their work. A doctor whose diagnoses and treatments are sound and whose patients get better is a doctor with authority. A preacher whose parishioners learn the Bible and grow in their faith is a preacher with authority. A chief executive officer whose customers are satisfied and whose business makes money possesses authority. The results confirm the blessings of God, the ultimate source of authority, on their actions. Jesus’ success in teaching and healing was proof of His authority.

The third test of a person’s authority is their knowledge and experience. God is the source of all knowledge and experience, and He confers authority on this basis. I have authority in medicine, the military, and Christian ministry by virtue of 27 years of training and experience. Because of decades on the Supreme Court, Antonin Scalia has authority in the realm of US law and government. Alan Greenspan has authority in finance and Warren Buffet in business for the same reasons. In every case, the Lord provided knowledge and experience in various areas to people, thus giving them authority in what He called them to do.

The fourth and least important test of a man or woman’s authority is the position he or she holds. We also know when a person has authority by the position that God gives them. When He places a person with inherent authority by virtue of their character into a position of authority in a society, such as a governor, that person receives additional authority from the consent of the people (at least some of them). Most inhabitants from the lowest to the greatest recognized the rational-legal authority of the centurion in Matthew 8, but some Jewish nationalist zealots did not.

Consider again the example of the centurion. He recognized Jesus’ authority in His character, His knowledge and His ability to teach and work miracles. Though without formal education, Jesus had awesome personal authority (Mark 1:27). The centurion himself had authority in his character (he cared for his servant), his abilities (he picked the right guy to ask for help), and his position (a leader in the Roman army).

How do we respond to authority?

The first thing that Christians must do is question authority, to seek its source in leaders we encounter. Jesus did not ask others to accept His authority blindly. Rather He lived a sinless life, spoke powerful words and performed mighty deeds, attributing His power to God the Father. Jesus based His claim to authority on the evidence of who He was (character) and what He could do (abilities), despite His lack of wealth or position.

Doctors and other professionals claim power to heal, teach, practice law, or whatever they do, on the basis of training and experience. Bureaucrats and businessmen base their claims on the positions or money they hold. If a person claims charismatic authority, they had better be prepared to back it up with Scripture, or other evidence that God has really called them. None of these, however, have real authority unless they have godly character, as reflected in their actions. We shall know a tree by its fruits (Luke 6:43-45).

Questioning authority is an ongoing task. Mankind is nothing if not unstable, and the best leaders can go rapidly astray. Followers must ensure that their leaders stay accountable to the pertinent laws and to the needs of others. Peter was a mighty man of God and worked amazing miracles, but he needed to be rebuked by Paul when he fell into sin. King David is another tragic example.

Once we are convinced that a leader has authority, we must follow him or her. Our words must support our leaders, and our acts must align with their priorities. Whether or not we like our boss, our governor, or our president, we must pray for him or her. Insofar as leaders have authority over us, we must follow them. In Romans 13 Paul taught that Christians should obey those placed in authority over them. The only exception is when a leader says or does something which is clearly against the will of God. In that case, Christians must disobey the leader and face the consequences (Acts 5:29).

Christians should be slow in giving their loyalty to others, but slower in taking it away. There is no perfect leader on the earth, and we should expect none. There is also no perfect follower. Sometimes leaders make mistakes, and sometimes they intentionally do wrong. Sometimes followers misinterpret a leader’s action as a mistake or an intentional wrong when in reality it was the best that anyone could have done in that situation. Sometimes leaders do the same vis a vis their followers. Rather than discard relationships like yesterday’s newspapers, followers of Christ must show grace towards one another and stay together unless it becomes impossible to do otherwise.

How do we wield authority?

Everyone has to be a follower at some point in life, and everyone has to be a leader. Whether a garbage man or a general, a homemaker or a high ranking bureaucrat, everyone follows someone and everyone leads someone.

As God is the ultimate source of authority and will remove it eventually from everyone who misuses it, the way to wield authority is to do so as God does. Jesus had the power of the Almighty, even over life and death, and yet He used it to bless others. He fed the hungry, healed the sick, taught the confused, forgave the sinners and raised the dead. While our power is limited, we must do the same. God never gives power so that a man can enrich himself; He always empowers someone to accomplish His work.

Therefore, leaders must wield authority with character – the fruits of the Spirit. We must demonstrate love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control in all of our actions. Sometimes I give money to the needy, an act of authority since God has provided me enough money to give. However if I remind the receivers of my largesse towards them, I am not wielding my authority properly.

Whether a leader’s authority is based on their knowledge, experience, position, or (more likely) a combination of these, they must also wield their authority in such a way as to produce good and enduring results. Good intentions do not equal good results, as President Ulysses S. Grant realized. An executive might throw open the doors of her hospital and provide free care for all comers, but bankrupt the hospital in a few months. She exercised authority but not in a way that produced enduring good results.

Conclusion

Authority, the power or right to direct or control someone or something, is a great mystery. To varying extents everyone wants it, everyone needs it, and no one wants others to have it over them. God holds all authority and dispenses it to men for a time as He sees fit. Authority comes from God through what a man is (character), what he can do (training, experience), and what resources he controls (wealth, position). Christians must question authority, follow authority, and wield authority for the glory of the Lord and the good of others. We must never wield it for our own selfish good.

 

[1] http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/authority

[2] http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/declaration_transcript.html

[3] http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/rightsof.asp

[4] Annual Message to Congress 1862 — Concluding Remarks, http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/congress.htm

Spiritual Warfare

Our church recently sent a mission team to Eastern Europe to work with local churches in music, outreach, and Vacation Bible School. As they were returning to the airport, the driver nodded off and the van ran off the road, rolling several times before coming to a stop. Thankfully the injuries were limited to skin lacerations and concussions. As the story of the accident was recounted in church the following Sunday, everyone was shocked, many prayed, and others asked what else they could do to help.

Our family has a young woman from Iran living with us, our “adopted daughter (AD)”, who attends a class of international Christians with many Muslim background believers. On hearing the news, one of the women in that class announced that the accident was caused by spiritual warfare. AD, trained in science, was puzzled. This incident was clearly an accident, caused by a purely natural phenomenon, fatigue. Could this be interpreted as spiritual warfare, or was that interpretation an example of sincere but misguided faith? Driving home that day, AD asked me what I thought.

This issue is important, because Christians and non-Christians have been misunderstanding each other for centuries over such differences of opinion. Westerners and Easterners, regardless of their religious faith, have also split over such questions. Westerners, children of Modernism, are bewildered as to why Easterners feel the need to add spiritual activity to explain a normal occurrence. Easterners wonder why Westerners fail to see any cause besides mechanical, naturalistic ones. This article explores how spiritual forces participate in events in our world.

Definitions

As with every discussion, our first task is to define our terms. We will use the phrase “spiritual forces” to refer to anything not observable in the physical universe. By this usage demons and angels, as well as the spirit of each person, are “spiritual forces”. Similarly atoms and molecules, as well as the body of each person, are physical. A human being is a hybrid, both spiritual and physical. Though this may seem unnecessarily dualistic to some readers, such a dichotomy is consistent with common usage. “Warfare” is the conflict between good forces, both spiritual and physical, and evil forces, in the universe. “Spiritual warfare” occurs when good spiritual forces such as angels fight evil spiritual forces such as demons.

Had a demon pushed the church van off the road, if that is even possible, some Christians may have considered that spiritual warfare, because Christians believe that sharing the Gospel is the work of God. Were a Muslim to think about the same situation, he may conclude that an angel pushed the car off the road to stop the Unbelievers from doing their work. Either way, spiritual warfare entails spiritual forces using their power to shape events in the spiritual and physical world.

Biblical Examples of Spiritual Warfare

The Fall of Man as recorded in Genesis can be considered the classic example of spiritual warfare in the Bible. In it a spiritual entity, Satan , manifested himself as a serpent and tempted Adam and Eve, physical and spiritual hybrids, to produce a change in the physical and spiritual worlds. Importantly, Satan did not cause a change in the physical world but used humans to do so. The Devil used pride (“you will be as god”), resentment (“god is keeping good things from us”), and jealousy (“god and satan have this knowledge and I don’t”) in the human heart to do his work.

Job is another example. Satan surely incited the Sabeans and the Chaldeans to attack Job, and he undoubtedly got God to supply the winds to destroy the house. The demon possessed people in the Gospels confirm that demons use physical beings, people and animals, to accomplish their purposes. The Bible suggests that spiritual beings cannot directly change the physical world without a physical intermediary.

Spiritual Warfare in Modern Life

Some do not believe in any spirit world at all. They would argue that nothing exists except matter and energy, and even these are interchangeable. Those who believe in a spiritual (non-material) world will often argue that spiritual warfare contributes (but does not necessarily cause) human sin. In this world view, demons might entice an argument between friends, and angels might encourage reconciliation in a married couple. This argument between friends is likely to have some real physical consequences, and those consequences can therefore be reasonably attributed to spiritual warfare.

The Chain of Causation

The woman in the Bible Fellowship class said that the accident was caused by spiritual warfare, so we must now examine what it means to cause something. To cause is to make something happen, and causes are not single events but rather chains of events. Consider the chain of causation of a man who has just died of a heart attack:

  1. Immediate cause of death – his heart stopped
  2. Cause of his heart stopping – lack of oxygen to the heart muscle
  3. Cause of the lack of oxygen – clot in his coronary arteries that prevented blood flow to large areas of his heart
  4. Cause of the clot in his coronary arteries – buildup of atherosclerotic plaque (fat, cholesterol, calcium, etc.) in the arteries from many years of poor diet, obesity, lack of exercise, and smoking.
  5. Cause of poor diet – few healthy foods available, never developed a taste for fruits and vegetables, bad examples during childhood
  6. Cause of lack of exercise – violent neighborhood, no sidewalks or bike paths
  7. Cause of smoking – peer pressure, uninformed about health risks, easy access
  8. Factors and events in a causal chain can be traced back essentially forever.

Clearly a chain of events and contributing factors led to this man’s death. A doctor completing his death certificate would probably write “heart attack” for cause of death, but could logically pick any factor or event in the chain. In fact, death certificates in America require the physician to identify the immediate cause of death and any secondary causes. These documents also include a narrative section to include other contributing factors. Researchers who conclude that “smoking causes death” or “obesity will kill you” and public health educators who shout such messages from the mountaintops do precisely that. Every event has a chain of causation which can be examined in exactly the same way.

Spiritual Warfare and the Accident in Eastern Europe

If we consider the chain of causation and the accident noted above, it is clear that the immediate cause of the accident was the driver nodding off. With the available information, we can go no further, and our conclusion might be that the accident was a natural occurrence and had nothing to do with spiritual warfare. If we learned that the driver was intoxicated or using drugs before the accident, and we know that spiritual problems contribute to substance abuse, we might reintroduce spiritual warfare as a possible cause. If we discovered that the driver had had a bitter argument with others in the van and they were all in sullen silence, not helping him stay awake over the long miles, we would probably admit that spiritual warfare was a contributing factor.

Conclusion

Those who attributed the van accident of the mission team in Eastern Europe to a physical cause were certainly right. The woman who attributed the accident to spiritual warfare may also have been right, but we don’t have the information to say definitively yes or no. No event happens without a chain of causes, and the conclusions one reaches depend upon where he looks in the link in the causal chain. The best response is the accept the physical causes, acknowledge the likelihood of spiritual forces acting in every situation, be humble, and act accordingly.

How ordinary people can contribute to extraordinary change

Ordinary people often feel powerless to improve our society, or even our lives. We can, and we do, but we can do it better. 

Last night after dinner my family and I were discussing some of the Middle East events of the day, and the picture was not pretty. Fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria were capturing more territory, killing more people, and destroying mosques and other religious sites. Hamas and Hezbollah were launching rocket attacks on Israel, who was retaliating with air strikes, killing many. Syria remained embroiled in its civil war, and the “Arab Spring” of 2011, with all of its hopes of democracy, has turned sour. My daughter, visibly troubled, asked what our government was going to do about all of this mayhem. I answered that no matter how powerful, governments have limited ability to intervene. The American President Barack Obama, who some consider to be the most powerful man in the world, has four main elements of American national power that he can use to accomplish US goals in the world, which in this case is to restore peace and stability and promote democracy.

1. Diplomatic power – the ability to persuade other nations to think, speak and act in a way which furthers, or at least does not oppose, US interests.
2. Informational power – the ability to influence other nations via culture, mass media, research and development, intelligence, and cyber activities.
3. Military power – the ability to influence or compel other nations to act in accordance with American interests by physical force.
4. Economic power – the ability to influence other nations via providing or withholding money and other economic resources.

With respect to the Middle East, the US has diplomats working furiously to persuade all of the parties to the conflicts above to lay down their arms. America is using Voice of America, international cooperation agreements in science, arts, and hundreds of other areas, intelligence and cyber activities to encourage (and threaten) international players. The US military has fought in the region for the past 10 years, and America gives billions of dollars per year to all sides to influence them into peace. Nonetheless, lasting success is elusive.

Developing nations such as Brazil, Russia, India and China (BRIC) have slowed their rapid growth and have major environmental and demographic struggles. Conflicts, such as that between Japan and China for the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands, and that between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, loom. Developed nations such as the Western democracies have difficulty doing much at all, domestically or internationally. America struggles to reform entitlement spending, taxes, and immigration, and falls deeper into debt. Europe languishes, with the South needing ever more money from the North and the European Area unemployment rate at nearly 12%. The very existence of the European Union as it is currently constituted is in doubt.

With this as context, we gathered for our nightly family devotions. After reading and discussing a chapter in Exodus, my son assigned each of us items for prayer from the book Operation World, a prayer guide for the nations. Almost every night for several years we have prayed through this book, learning about the work of God in the world and intervening before the Lord on behalf of the nations. It is one way that we regularly bless the world.

What can regular people like us do to bring glory to God and make the world better for all?

In the song Do Something, Matthew West reminds his listeners that Jesus is the head and Christians are the body of Christ. Therefore we need to act to spread His message and promote peace and justice on earth.

1. Glorify God at all times and in everything that you do.
2. Be excellent at whatever you do. It does little good for a plumber who is a Christian to pray and give money to important causes if he is dishonest in his business dealings or incompetent as a plumber. As 1 Corinthians 10:31 says, “Whatever you do, do all for the glory of God.”
3. Develop the character of God. If Christians were consistently people of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, the world would be a different place.
4. Pray for the peoples and the nations, and that justice and mercy will go hand in hand in every situation.
5. Read, study, ponder, and memorize the Bible every day.
6. Repair relationships with others; forgiving those that you should forgive and allotting more time to people than things.
7. Repent of your sins and confess them to God, and to others if you have wronged them.
8. Share your needs with others, encourage them to share theirs with you, and work together to meet those needs.
9. Study the issues and learn about them in detail; they are generally much more complicated than the media reports.
10. Give money, other resources, and time to your local church or a charity engaged in causes that God has called you to advance; those that you care about.
11. Vote.
12. Teach your children and those who follow you. Success without successors is failure.
13. Share your beliefs with others in your circle, and your church, community and elected leaders.
14. Boycott companies and countries that behave badly or support causes and people with which you disagree. Patronize and invest in their competitors
15. Do business with companies that express your values, such as small, local companies instead of big, sprawling ones.
16. Go to troubled areas yourself in conjunction with a group supporting good work there.
17. Do things yourself – cooking and eating together with your family at home, gardening, and other home projects make each family more independent. They also can save money by decreasing sales tax and fees paid.
18. Spend less money on yourself. Instead invest more in productive enterprises and donate more to worthwhile causes.
19. Consume less media, whether television, internet, social media, or whatever. Spend more time reading and thinking and less as a passive receiver of information.

Conclusion

Whether we look at military conflict, economic issues, or cultural trends, the world does not seem to be getting more stable. Governments are unable to make lasting, positive change. However, this has always been the case. It is not government but people who make the world better. Whether the people work in the government, work in the private sector, volunteer, or go to school, individuals make life better, or worse, for each of us.

Ultimately, it is God working through His people that makes our world better. Participating in His work requires faithfulness, sacrifice, and patience. Few changes happen quickly, and those that do often do not last. The path to lasting change in the world, in the church, and in our lives, is laid out in 2 Chronicles 7:14

“If My people who are called by My name will humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.”