Is Christianity Just Another Form of Self-Seeking?

I received this question from a reader recently:
What would you say to someone who claims that “all people watch out for themselves first, even Christians come to their faith in order to selfishly serve themselves and to secure a positive afterlife.”?
I would respond to this claim by pointing out that the Christian ethic is acutely opposed to selfishness. This is exemplified by our God who self-sacrificially gave himself for us; forfeiting glory in exchange for shame, dishonor, discomfort, and death in order to save us. We are then encouraged throughout the New Testament to follow that example in how we relate to others: to lay down our lives for the sake of God’s mission, which is to rescue people out of darkness and death. Christians are encouraged to not seek our own good first, but to sacrifice for the good of others.
A great scripture on this is Philippians 2:3-8:
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
When it comes to salvation, it is too simplistic to claim that Christianity is only about obtaining a “get out of hell free card.” Jesus said in John 17:3 that the essence of eternal life is knowing God; this means that for Christians, salvation is more than just being saved in the afterlife, it is being saved in the here and now, essentially giving up your life here on Earth for God’s plans and purposes, and this life of salvation continues on beyond death – which is what humans were originally created for to begin with, but which was ruined by sin (and the curse of sin, which is death).
This person would not be wrong in saying that many people turn to Christianity for purely selfish reasons. This is nothing new. A lot of people look to God as useful to them, but when you understand the Gospel, that changes: you begin to no longer see God as useful, you begin to see Him as beautiful, and that becomes your motivation in worshiping and serving him.
Do you see God primarily as useful or as beautiful?
Just because some people “do it wrong” doesn’t mean that the flaw is with Christianity. In fact, Jesus himself criticized such people harshly – particularly the Pharisees, who sought to use religion for selfish gain rather than giving up their lives to serve God and serve others. Jesus said that anyone who tries to hold onto their life will lose it, but only the person who gives up their life for the sake of the gospel will find it. The gospel he is referring to is the mission of God to rescue people – thus what he’s describing is a life of sacrificial love and service to others, which helps work out God’s plan for their life (that they would know God and be rescued from sin and death both now and for eternity).
One last thing: this person seems to be making a common assumption: that selflessness is the highest virtue. Consider this quote from CS Lewis on this topic:
If you asked twenty good men today what they thought the highest of the virtues, nineteen of them would reply, Unselfishness.  But if you had asked almost any of the great Christians of old, he would have replied, Love.  You see what has happened?  A negative term has been substituted for a positive, and this is of more than philological importance.  The negative idea of Unselfishness carries with it the suggestion not primarily of securing good things for others, but of going without them ourselves, as if our abstinence and not their happiness was the important point.  I do not thik this is the Christian virtue of Love.  The New Testament has lots to say about self-denial, but not about self-denial as an end in itself.  We are told to deny ourselves and to take up our crosses in order that we may follow Christ; and nearly every description of what we shall ultimately find if we do so contains an appeal to desire.  If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly to hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith.  Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak.  We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by an offer of a holiday at the sea.  We are far too easily pleased.
– CS Lewis, The Weight of Glory 
For more on this, check out this article from the CS Lewis foundation, which goes into more depth on the topic of ethics and virtues.

Why Ethics Depends on Origin

In my last post I mentioned how much I appreciated the intellectual integrity of Penn Jillette for saying that he respects Christians who share their faith and evangelize, because if you really believe the gospel, then the only appropriate response is to share it with others.

Today I’d like to address the opposite approach: a very common and yet completely contradictory set of beliefs about the meaning and value of life.

I recently came across this quote from well-known atheist Steven Pinker, author of the book, “How the Mind Works.”

“When it comes to ethics, ethical theory requires free rational agents whose behavior is uncaused. Now, ethical theory can be useful even though the world as seen by science does not really have uncaused events.” – Steven Pinker

Do you catch what he’s saying? He’s essentially saying that ethics are useful to society, but that they really have no basis in reality. In other words: ethics help society function, but in a view of the world in which there is no God who created you, ethics are completely baseless.

To put it simply: if there is no God who created you, there is absolutely no rational reason for saying that you are any more important than a stick. And you really have no original thoughts or creativity. Everything you do is programed, nothing is uncaused. You are just a hunk of matter, and therefore your life is utterly insignificant.

And yet, Pinker is saying that in spite of this, we should live as if human life is special and we as human beings are valuable, because it is helpful to the functioning of society, even if it isn’t true.

Here’s the point: an atheistic/humanistic worldview is incredibly conflicted.

On the one hand, modern Western society is obsessed with self-esteem. Our schools put a huge focus on telling kids that they are unique and valuable. We affirm that every life has innate value. And yet, at the same time we have a secular worldview which says that if there is no God, you still have to live as if human beings are significant, even though in reality they are not at all.

In other words, if your origin is insignificant and your destiny in insignificant, then the conclusion is that your life and everyone else’s life is insignificant. However, at the same time we are told to believe that we must pretend that it is.

That’s not intellectual integrity, that’s intellectual schizophrenia.

Atheism has an inherent problem with human rights: on the one hand our modern Western culture believes in individual human rights, and yet on the other hand, there is a push for an existential and eschatological narrative which undermines the very foundation for believing in equal individual human rights.

I have written more on this subject here: Atheism and Human Rights: An Inherent Problem.

Christianity, on the other hand, tells us that human beings were created by God, in His image, and therefore our lives have innate value and purpose – even if there is nothing that we can contribute to society, such as in the case of handicapped individuals.

Furthermore, the message of the gospel is that the lord of the universe left His heavenly throne and came to the Earth in order to save us by giving His life in order to redeem us — which means that you and your life have more value than you can even comprehend.

Modern Western culture has held onto the belief in individual value and human rights, something which has its basis in Christian doctrine and theology, while trying to eschew Christian doctrine and theology in the areas of origin, existence and destiny.

Ethics depend on origin. If you believe that human life has equal and inherent value, please remember where that idea comes from: the Word of God.

Atheism and Human Rights: An Inherent Problem

I recently heard someone mention something, which made me want to probe a little deeper. What this person said was that there is an inherent problem for atheists who believe in human rights, which is probably most of them in our modern age.

Why is that?

Here’s the problem: If there is no God, then how did you get here? Why are you alive?  It was through a series of natural selection which saw the survival of the fittest and the death of the weak.

In other words, the reason you are here, in an atheistic evolutionary model, is because your ancestors trampled on their competitors, who were the weaker of that given society.

So, if that is the entire basis of how humanity evolves and makes progress, then on what basis should we advocate for human rights?  To do so would not help further the progress of humanity, but only slow us down, according to this line of thinking.

Here are a few examples of people, who are atheists and who realize this inherent problem with atheistic evolutionary belief and our modern notion of universal human rights:

“The Darwinian worldview must look upon the present sentimental conception of the value of the life of a human individual as an overestimate completely hindering the progress of humanity.”

“The human state, like every animal community, must reach a higher level of perfection through the destruction of the less well-endowed individual. The state has an interest in preserving the more excellent life at the expense of the less excellent.”

Robert Kossmann, “The Importance of the Life of an Individual in the Darwinian Worldview”, 1880: German medical professor whose views influenced later Nazi regime attitudes and actions.

Richard Rorty (1931-2007), a committed atheist, also acknowledged that the basic assumptions upon which his worldview operated could not account for human rights since the struggle for survival eliminates the weak with no regard for any overarching morality.

Rorty admitted that “the concept of human rights came from ‘religious claims that human beings are made in the image of God,’ and admits that he reaches over and borrows the concept of universal human rights from Christianity, even though at the same time acknowledging that his atheistic Darwinian view gives no basis for a belief in universal human rights, but actually encourages just the opposite: the extermination of the weak by the strong.1

It was in fact this very view which led to the attitude in Nazi Germany that people with handicaps were an unnecessary burden on society, and that it was therefore better to put them to some good use for the common good, i.e. inhumane medical experimentation without consent. It was this same view which led to the devaluing of human life by the Soviet regime.

And yet, in our day, it is generally thought that it is perfectly normal to be an atheist and to believe in human rights at the same time. The problem with that is that such a person is ignoring the inherent contradiction between these two, and borrowing the concept of intrinsic human value from Christianity although it is not a natural result of atheistic reasoning. At least Rorty was willing to admit it!

Because if human rights means that we are not supposed to trample upon weak individuals, then that contradicts the basic premise of how atheistic evolutionary theory of human progress works!

Rorty and other atheists see this inherent problem, and yet they have no answer other than to say: if there is no God, there should be no human rights, but yet I believe that human rights are there.

The problem is: they stop right there and don’t allow reason to take them to the next logical step, which is to say: Okay, if there is no God, there should be no human rights, but yet I know that human rights are obviously there…  and so: maybe I was wrong about there being no God…

I can’t help but believe that there are some who sense this inherent problem and allow it to lead them to belief in God – I pray that more will – and not just any god, but the God of Christianity, the only God who gave his life to redeem people of all tribes, tongues, nations, ages and ability-levels, because he believed that they all had an equal level of intrinsic value as human beings. He is a God who associated with the weak and marginalized, even to the point of becoming one himself in order to save others. If you believe in human rights, you got it from him.

 

1. [Nancy Pearcey, Finding Truth, pp. 225-226, quoted by Gary DeMar in ‘Why Atheists Can’t Account for Human Rights’]

Does Forgiveness Simply Mean Suppressing Your Feelings?

In reading through some material for a class I’m taking on Christian ethics, I ran across an interesting discussion of the ethic of forgiveness, related to Jesus as Priest (part of that being that one role of priests in the Old Testament is that they were mediators of forgiveness between God and humans).

Here is the quote from Esther Reed in the book “The Genesis of Ethics”:

Christian ethics has much to share with – as well as to learn from – the survivors of sexual abuse and domestic violence. A problem for both is that forgiveness is too often confused with passive acceptance of wrong, or the suppression of hurt and anger.

The supposed virtue of self-control, and the ideal of self-sacrifice or martyrdom, can lead women to believe that in accepting abuse and exploitation they are doing what Christianity, especially in its support for family values, requires. For neither, however, does forgiveness properly equate with sweeping wrong aside. Rather, it has regard for the specifics of a person’s situation and never trivializes any suffering endured. Anything less is what Bonhoeffer calls ‘cheap grace’, because there is no recognition of guilt and no call for genuine repentance.

I recently spoke about this very thing at White Fields Church – on the oft-missunderstood topic of ‘turning the other cheek’ and what that means, because it has often been taken to mean allowing people to walk all over you or permitting people to abuse you. I don’t believe that’s what it means – and I explained that in detail in a study titled “Loving Your Enemies” – the audio of which can be found here.

The American Religion of Parenting

A few days ago I was scanning Twitter and was intrigued by the title of an article: How American parenting is killing the American marriage

The article is a very insightful critique of the culture of parenting – or “religion of parenting”, as the author calls it – in our society, and the results of it.

Of particular interest to me was how the author points out that there is an unspoken understanding in our society that the value of a human life peaks out at birth and diminishes from there.

The origins of the parenthood religion are obscure, but one of its first manifestations may have been the “baby on board” placards that became popular in the mid-1980s. Nobody would have placed such a sign on a car if it were not already understood by society that the life of a human achieves its peak value at birth and declines thereafter. A toddler is almost as precious as a baby, but a teenager less so, and by the time that baby turns fifty, it seems that nobody cares much anymore if someone crashes into her car. You don’t see a lot of vehicles with placards that read, “Middle-aged accountant on board.”

Today I talked with a great lady from our church who heads up an outreach called “Project Greatest Gift”, in which we provide Christmas gifts for children in foster care. Weld County told us that many of the children in foster care are living with elderly people, and they asked if we might be willing to provide gifts for the caretakers this year as well.
This seems like a great opportunity for us to show that we value all human life, both young and old.

Another important insight of the article is how this religion of parenting has led to a quickly rising divorce rate among empty nesters:

In the 21st century, most Americans marry for love. We choose partners who we hope will be our soulmates for life. When children come along, we believe that we can press pause on the soulmate narrative, because parenthood has become our new priority and religion. We raise our children as best we can, and we know that we have succeeded if they leave us, going out into the world to find partners and have children of their own. Once our gods have left us, we try to pick up the pieces of our long neglected marriages and find new purpose. Is it surprising that divorce rates are rising fastest for new empty nesters?

I think that one of the things the Christian church has done well is championing marriage. The writer to the Hebrews says: “Let marriage be held in honor among all.” (‭Hebrews‬ ‭13‬:‭4‬ ESV) I have had the privilege to see successful Christians marriages that thrived even after the kids left the house, because they made their marriage and not their children the center of their family.

How Does Marriage Affect Violence Against Women and Children?

How Does Marriage Affect Violence Against Women and Children?

This article in the Washington Post this week showed that statistically, women and children in married families suffer far less domestic violence than those in other situations.

Married women are notably safer than their unmarried peers, and girls raised in a home with their married father are markedly less likely to be abused or assaulted than children living without their own father.

As Christians, one of the best things we can do for society is to uphold and promote strong biblical ethics.

…The Harder They Fall

On my way home from church on Sunday I saw a Facebook message saying that the pastor of the largest church in the movement I’ve long been associated with had resigned due to moral failure.

I hate hearing this kind of stuff.

Over the last several days I have seen tons of posts on social media from other pastors about this pastor’s fall. I understand that they want to address what’s going on. I understand that they are upset and want to talk about it. I’m not sure if we should be posting that kind of news everywhere though. At what point is it just gossip? Gossip is still gossip if you present it as a “prayer request”. Isn’t it spreading sensational news about someone else’s junk that really has no bearing on us personally?

I opened the CNN app on my iPad on Monday, only to see an article on the front page about this pastor’s moral failure and resignation. Great – more fuel for those who are always looking for fodder against Christianity and the Church.

I’m upset that someone in that man’s position would risk his legacy, his family and the reputation of the Church of Jesus Christ for some fleeting moments of pleasure.

I am sad for his wife and kids who have to go through all of this in the public eye. I am concerned for that church, and pray that the people who attend there will have the maturity to walk through this process as a body, faithful to the heart and will of God.

I am glad to see that high moral standards are upheld, and exceptions aren’t made for someone because they are gifted, talented and popular. Personally, I loved listening to that man teach. He is truly a gifted communicator. I heard someone put it this way: “David kills Goliath no matter how you read the story, but some teachers are able to make the story come alive – whereas other teachers make you wish someone would hit you in the head with a stone and put you out of your misery.” This man is a great teacher. But I am glad that his skill and celebrity were not used as an excuse for making an exception to the rules for him when it comes to moral standards for those who will serve as leaders in the God’s church.

This situation is one more sober warning for Christians, and especially for those of us in leadership and ministry, that we must watch over our hearts with all dilligence, because it is from the overflow of our hearts that our actions proceed.

 

Marijuana Leglaization Changing Colorado

A few weeks ago I had my first experience meeting someone who had relocated his family to Colorado because of medicinal marijuana. This man, a professing Christian, told me his story of being so sick with intestinal issues and nausea, that he couldn’t eat for several months. During this time he lost about 200 lbs (he was big to begin with), and was unable to work. His doctors from his home state encouraged him to try medical marijuana – he travelled to Colorado and looked into it, then moved here and later brought his family. This man explained to me that he doesn’t drink alcohol and had never gotten high in his life – but that marijuana as medicine has helped him greatly. He’s now able to hold down food and a job.

What are we to make of this – especially as Christians?  Certainly there is a difference between getting high and taking medicine. But is marijuana a legitimate medicine? Dr. Sanjay Gupta of CNN seems to think so. Not long ago Gupta was outspoken against all forms of marijuana legalization, but has recently come out in favor of medical marijuana. 

I have written before on this blog, that I’m not a supporter of the legalization of marijuana for recreational purposes. Interestingly, the man I mentioned above is not a supporter of it either. He moved to Longmont, a city with a moratorium on both medicinal and recreational marijuana sales, because he said he doesn’t want to be in a place with a lot of dispensaries because of all that comes with them. I think there’s a big difference between medical marijuana and recreational marijuana. My teenage son got a prescription for codeine recently after a tooth extraction. There’s a big difference between using codeine (a narcotic) for medical purposes and taking codeine or any other prescription drug recreationally.

On the local news last night, it was reported that Colorado is now a major destination for college kids on spring break. Doesn’t take a lot of guessing to figure out why: Denver has become the Amsterdam of the Americas. Yes, this brings in a lot of tax revenue, so much so that CNN Money reported today that Coloradans may be looking at getting a tax break because of the millions of dollars pouring into state coffers from recreational marijuana taxes, which are only expected to increase as recreational sales increase – but is it worth it?

CNN posted another video this week mentioning a lot of the same concerns that I’ve also expressed: namely that the legalization of marijuana won’t actually kill the black market for marijuana since it is taxed so highly, but will simply increase recreational marijuana use all across the board by making it more mainstream, especially amongst teenagers. Everyone agrees that wouldn’t be good – but in fact, it is already happening.

The encounter I had with the man mentioned above was my first – but I suspect it will not be the last. The legalization of marijuana is changing Colorado.

What are your thoughts on this? Leave a comment below and let me know what you think.

Should I Tithe if I’m in Debt?

One of the questions I am frequently asked as a pastor is whether people who are in debt should tithe to their church, or if they should rather dedicate that money to paying off their debt.

UPDATE: Since this post was written, my wife and I have paid off our debt. More about that in this post: Debt Free!

First of all, I should say that the New Testamnet does not require that a person give a tithe (10% of their income donated to the congregation where they worship) per se. Although this requirement did exist in the Old Testament for the nation of Israel, the New Testament teaches that we are to give unto the Lord not out of obligation but from a cheerful heart, to contribute to the work of the Lord and the community of faith. Many, however, including myself, believe that the Old Testament standard of a tithe, although not required by the New Testament, is a good guideline for giving.

According to Business Insider, the average American household is $6,500 in debt – that’s consumer debt not related to their mortgage.

The average American household carries $6,500 of consumer debt

There is a good chance that MOST people in any given church in America are in thousands of dollars of debt. That means that there are multitudes of faithful Christians who desire to honor God with their money by giving to Him of their first fruits and investing in building His Kingdom and spreading the Gospel – who wonder if giving a few hundred dollars in tithe to their church every month should rather be directed towards paying off their debt.

The short answer? Yes, I think you should regularly give tithes and offerings, even if you are in debt.

I know that some people will not agree with that – but please understand that I do not say that lightly at all. I too am in debt, and yet I tithe. I don’t want to be in debt, in fact, I’m working very hard to get out of debt. Last year we had some unexpected expenses which we deemed worthy of going into debt for. So, I say this as one who is in the same boat – carrying debt and struggling with whether to give a tithe or offering to my church or use that money to help pay off our debt.

I too am in debt, and yet I tithe

Here is why I tithe even though I have debt:

The tithe is not God’s way of raising money, it’s God’s way of raising kids.

I tithe because it is a values issue, and it trains my heart. By making the first check I write every month my tithe check, I am making a clear statement of my priorities and values. And it sends a message to my heart, that for us, we would rather invest in the Kingdom of God and the furtherance of the Gospel than just buying more stuff.

‘But, wait’ – you might say: ‘You wouldn’t be using that money to buy more stuff, you would be using that money to pay off your debt for the stuff you already bought.’ That’s nice in theory, but in practice, most people, with a few hundred more dollars in their pocket, won’t regularly devote that money to aggressively paying off their debt, it will just be a cushion on their budget.

The key to getting out of debt for many people is changing your lifestyle, not having a little more money – and tithing helps you change your lifestyle.

People who have more money – guess what they do? They spend more money. I watched a documentary on Netflix the other day about how an astonishing number of professional athletes go broke within just a few years of retirement. They had a lot of money and they spent a lot of money. What we need is a lifestyle change, not just more money. I have found that letting go of some of my money and giving it to God as the first thing I do when I get paid releases me from the grip of money – and helps me to change my lifestyle.

I have found then when I tithe vs when I don’t tithe, I don’t really end up with more money in my pocket, or get ahead with getting out of debt.

A sacrifice is only a sacrifice if it hurts.

David said, I will not sacrifice to the Lord that which cost me nothing (2 Samuel 24:24)  The woman who gave 2 mites – it was a relatively insignificant amount to the rest of us, but for her IT HURT. And Jesus publicly commended her for giving in a sacrificial way, although she could have just as well used that money to buy milk or bread which she probably had need of. She gave sacrificially, and Jesus not only commended her for it – God made sure it was recorded for all time so that generation after generation could learn from her example.

Worship and sacrifice are very closely related. We all sacrifice for what we worship. If we don’t sacrifice as an act of worship, well just put some thought into what that says about who you worship…

God is looking for vessels He can pour into, who will then pour back out what He has given them in ways that He desires. If we show ourselves faithful stewards with little, he will entrust us with more. I believe that God honors those who step out in faith and give radically and generously – because He is a God who also gives radically and generously, and when we do that, it aligns us in a greater way with His heart.

Is this a hard, fast rule? No. It’s a principle. But yet, it is the one principle, which God challenges us to test him on (see Malachi 3:10).

God loves a joyful giver. He doesn’t want people to give out of a sense of coercion or obligation. But this is a principle of which God says: “If you want to live the full life that I have designed for you, if you want to experience joy, then walk in this way,” – ‘the way everlasting’.

Marijuana Legalization and the Effect on Kids

One of my most popular posts on this blog so far was one I wrote about marijuana legalization and Christianity.

In that post, I mentioned that one of the greatest concerns I have with legalizing marijuana is NOT that I want to legislate Christian moral values on people who aren’t Christians (read more about that issue here) – but that it will make it more accessible to children, something that no one on either side of the discussion wants.

It seems that my concern is legitimate, and that this is already happening. The Denver Post published an article this week titled: “Pot problems in Colorado schools increase with legalization”. Here are some quotes from that article:

  • [Mike] Dillon… a school resource officer with the Mesa County Sheriff’s Department, said he is seeing more and younger kids bringing marijuana to schools, in sometimes-surprising quantities.
  • school officials believe the jump is linked to the message that legalization (even though it is still prohibited for anyone under 21) is sending to kids: that marijuana is a medicine and a safe and accepted recreational activity. It is also believed to be more available.
  • “Kids are smoking before school and during lunch breaks. They come into school reeking of pot,” “They are being much more brazen.”
  • when school officials were asked to identify the reason for students’ expulsions. Marijuana came in first. It was listed as being a reason for 32 percent of expulsions.
  • National statistics also point to marijuana being more prevalent in schools. The National Institute of Drug Abuse found that marijuana use has climbed among 10th- and 12th-graders nationally, while the use of other drugs and alcohol has held steady or declined.
  • “They need to know how destructive it is to the adolescent brain,”

I remember when I was in high school, kids brought pot to school and smoked it at school. I certainly don’t want my kids doing it though, and it seems to me that legalization will only make it more accessible – the facts show that is already happening.

What do you think? Is this something we should be concerned about?