Suicide, Christianity, & the Meaning of Life

Image result for martyr

If – as the Bible teaches – when a believer dies, their soul goes to be with God, where there is no longer any suffering, pain or sickness, then why would we not want to speed up the process a little bit? After all, as Paul the Apostle wrote to the Philippians, “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better” (Philippians 1:23). Why not take up smoking, stop using sunscreen, and give up wearing seatbelts? Or, to take it even further, why not just go all the way and end your life now, so you can leave this harsh world behind and go to Heaven?

If that sounds preposterous, keep in mind that this was something that actually happened in early Christian history: there was a time when committing suicide became fashionable among Christians, and the church had to respond and try to end this tragic fad.

When Christians Were Killing Themselves

Until the Edict of Milan, AKA the Edict of Tolleration was issued in 313 AD, Christianity’s status in the Roman Empire was that of religio illicita, an “illicit” or illegal religion (as opposed to Judaism, which held the status of religio licita)During this time, Christians throughout the Roman Empire experienced waves of persecution, usually dependent on the attitudes of local authorities, although there were times when persecution was the official policy of the entire empire – such as during the reigns of Nero and Diocletian. Christians also faced persecution outside the Roman Empire.

During this period, many Christians were martyred, and martyrs were highly regarded and respected as those who had been willing to pay the ultimate price for their faith. In fact, martyrdom was so highly regarded, that people began to seek it out and desire it, as a way of expressing their devotion to Jesus. Ignatius of Antioch, for example, wrote about his desire to die as a martyr.

But some people took it even further. Jerome writes about a young woman named Belsilla who flagellated herself so much that she died from her self-imposed injuries. Another woman, Agathonike, upon witnessing the execution of a bishop by burning, also threw herself onto the fire, declaring “this is the meal that has been prepared for me.” She died in the flames, even though she had not been arrested nor charged. There are other accounts of Christians volunteering to be martyred even though they were not even being sought by the authorities. [1]

The Donatists, who considered themselves particularly hard core and dedicated, greatly desired to show their devotion by being martyred, some even going to the point of simply killing themselves to show how spiritual they were, i.e. how much they were not attached to this life and how much they desired to depart this world and be with Christ.

The Response of the Church

Seeking martyrdom and committing suicide became such a big issue with the Donatists in particular that it threatened the credibility, and even the existence of the church in their area of North Africa.

Judaism had always considered suicide to be sinful, whereas in pagan Roman culture it was considered an acceptable way to exit this life, and was practiced mostly by the wealthy, in part because slaves were not allowed to commit suicide since their lives did not belong to them, but rather to their masters.

It was Augustine of Hippo, a native of North Africa himself, who took up the challenge of addressing this issue and clarifying Christian thinking on this subject. In his book ‘The City of God’, Augustine considered what the Bible has to say about suicide and weighed various arguments for and against suicide. His conclusion was that suicide is always wrong as it is a violation of the sixth commandment (“Thou shall not murder”), and is never justified even in extreme circumstances. This became the official position of the church. [2]

The Meaning of Life

This whole issue touches on something which is core to Christian belief, and which sets Christianity apart from other worldviews and religions.

Many world religions view the world negatively, as a place of chaos, pain, and suffering – where the goal is to escape. This is the goal of transcendence and Nirvana in Eastern philosophies and religions, for example.

Christianity on the other hand, views this world positively. Rather than seeing the origin of the world as having come about through conflict or chaos, it is described as the thoughtful and good creation of a loving God. It is described as a garden paradise, given to us as a gift by our loving creator.

Although this good creation has been corrupted by sin and world currently “lies under the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:19), the world still retains its fundamental goodness, and God has promised that one day He will redeem His creation.

The purpose of our lives, according to the Bible, is not to escape this world, but to steward this world (Genesis 1:28), as well as our lives and everything we’ve been given, to the glory of God and for the benefit and salvation of others. In other words: the people of God have been given a mission which can only be carried out in this life, and therefore this life matters greatly. Rather than escaping this world, His desire for us is to be about His business as long as we live.

It is an unbiblical an anemic theology of life and the world which leads to the attitude that the most spiritual thing to do is to bide your time as you wait to get out of this world to be with God. True spirituality is rather to value this life and the unique opportunities it affords to do the work of God, and be involved in his saving and redeeming work.

As Paul wrote to the Thessalonians: For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him. (1 Thessalonians 5:19)

Between now and the end of our lives, there is a whole space that is significant. How you live it matters greatly to God. There are things he wants you to do with that time (cf. Ephesians 2:10). The Christian life, in other words, is not simply waiting to die so you can go to Heaven. God has given you this life for a purpose and He wants to use you to advance His Kingdom and to touch lives. He values our lives, and so should we!

 

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Neil Armstrong is Cool, But Buzz Aldrin is My Hero

July 20, 1969 was the day that the Apollo 11 mission successfully placed two men on the moon: Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin.

Buzz Aldrin on the moon, July 20, 1969

While Neil rightly gets much of the attention for being the first to set foot on the moon, with his famous, but accidentally misspoken phrase, “This is one small step for [a] man, but one giant leap for mankind,” Buzz Aldrin is the one I look up to the most.

A Committed Christian

At the time when Buzz Aldrin went on the Apollo 11 mission, he wasn’t only an astronaut, he was an elder at his church: Webster Presbyterian Church in Webster, Texas.

Communion on the Moon

In total, Armstrong and Aldrin spent 21 hours on the surface of the moon, much of which was televised and was, unsurprisingly, the most-watched television event of that year.

During their time on the moon, Buzz Aldrin asked for a moment of silence, so he could celebrate in his own way: by reading some passages from the Bible and taking Holy Communion.

The passages he had written down on a piece of paper to read on the moon were John 15:5, where Jesus said, “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing,” and Psalm 8:3-4: “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?”

A handwritten card containing a Bible verse that Buzz Aldrin planned to broadcast back to Earth during a lunar Holy Communion service, featured in a space-related auction in Dallas, Texas, 2007. (Credit: LM Otero/AP Photo)
A handwritten card containing the Bible verses Buzz Aldrin read on the moon. (Credit: LM Otero/AP Photo)

Here’s how History.com recounts the events in their article, “Buzz Aldrin Took Holy Communion on the Moon. NASA Kept it Quiet”:

As the men prepared for the next phase of their mission, Aldrin got on the comm system and spoke to the ground crew back on Earth. “I would like to request a few moments of silence,” he said.

Then he reached for the wine and bread he’d brought to space—the first foods ever poured or eaten on the moon. “I poured the wine into the chalice our church had given me. In the one-sixth gravity of the moon the wine curled slowly and gracefully up the side of the cup,” he later wrote. Then, Aldrin read some scripture and ate. Armstrong looked on quietly but did not participate.

 

The communion bag and chalice used by Buzz Aldrin during his lunar communion. (Credit: David Frohman, President of Peachstate Historical Consulting, Inc.)
The communion bag and chalice used by Buzz Aldrin during his lunar communion. (Credit: David Frohman)

Buzz’s Big Take-Away

In a video message which was broadcast back to Earth from the spacecraft as they made their way back from the moon, Aldrin recited the passage from Psalm 8:3-4.

Here is the video of that message. He begins reading the Psalm at 2:49.

Punching Conspiracy Theorists

There are many people who believe the moon landing never actually happened and is part of a conspiracy on the part of the United States government to show their supremacy over the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

One version of this conspiracy theory says that director Stanley Kubrick filmed the whole thing on a soundstage, and then was so upset by what he had been forced to do, that he hid a confession in a later film: The Shining. In Stephen King’s novel, on which the film was based, the room which is the epicenter of the bad vibes in the hotel is Room 217, but in his film adaption of the novel, Kubrick changed the room number to Room 237, supposedly because the moon is roughly 237,000 miles from Earth.

You can read a list of moon landing conspiracy theories here, but most have been thoroughly disproven.

In 2002, Buzz Aldrin was ambushed by Bart Sibrel outside of a hotel in Los Angeles. Bart called Buzz “a coward and a liar and a…”. He didn’t get to finish his sentence, because Buzz, then 72 years old, punched Bart in the face. Fortunately someone was recording; here’s the video:

While this wasn’t Buzz’s finest moment, nor his most Christian response, it’s easy to understand Buzz’s frustration. It reminds me of the time when Paul the Apostle cast out a demon from a girl in Philippi after becoming “greatly annoyed” with her antics. (Acts 16:18)

On the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, I’m impressed with Buzz Aldrin, who was himself, uncompromisingly, as a Christian, on the world’s biggest stage. In our current age, all of us have a platform; are you using your platform to be an ambassador for Christ? May God give us the courage and wisdom to do so, and to do it well.

Feed the Goose & Use Your Calendar

white eggs in brown nest

One of Aesop’s fables tells the story of a man who found a goose who laid golden eggs. Every morning, he went and found another golden egg that the goose had laid, until one day he became greedy, and decided to cut the goose open so he could get more golden eggs. Of course, by doing so, not only did he not get any extra golden eggs, but he also ceased getting the daily eggs he had previously received, since the goose was now dead.

You can read the parable here or listen to this 1 minute audio version:

The point of the fable, Aesop said, is that greed often overreaches itself. However, like with most parables, there are several applicable truths packed into this very short story.

Many of the best things are acquired indirectly

The golden eggs in the story represent a desired outcome: something you want. For you, that might mean spiritual growth in your relationship with God, it might mean increased knowledge of the Bible or theology. It might mean deep and meaningful friendships, developing a skill, or increasing your success in your work. It might be making an impact on the world around you.

But what this fable illustrates for us, is that whatever the “golden egg” is for you, it is usually acquired indirectly. When the man in the story pursued the golden eggs directly, seeking to bypass the goose, he ended up with nothing, and killed the thing which gave him that which he wanted.

CS Lewis writes about how friendship works in a similar way. Friendship, he points out, must be about something else other than the friendship itself. The basis of a friendship is that both people are committed to and passionate about something beyond their friendship. “This is why,” Lewis says, “those pathetic people who simply ‘want friends’ can never make any.” “Those who have nothing can share nothing,” he points out, and concludes: “those who are going nowhere can have no fellow travelers.” (The Four Loves, ch. 4)

The same is true of spiritual growth. To quote from John Piper: “Doctrine is the fuel for worship.” The way to grow, the way towards deeper worship, is indirect: it is through getting to know more about who God is and what He has done and will do, which fuels growth and worship.

If you’ve ever met someone who is purposefully seeking to “climb the ladder” or make a name for themselves in an organization or community, it often backfires, because it is seen as off-putting and self-serving. On the other hand, those who make a practice of genuinely and faithfully serving others will not remain anonymous for very long.

If you want to keep getting “golden eggs”, then make sure you feed the “goose”

The goose in the fable is the thing which you must “feed” in order to get the desired results.

If your goal is spiritual growth, then to “feed the goose” means to do those things which will result in spiritual growth, e.g. reading the Bible, prayer, attending worship services, joining a community group.

At White Fields, something our leadership has done is develop a plan that guides us in doing the qualitative activities which we believe will lead to our desired outcome (our vision): to build and foster a passionate, engaged and spiritually healthy Christian community to influence and bless Longmont and beyond. The way we go about doing this (our mission) is by making disciples of Jesus Christ through teaching the Word of God, engaging in the mission of God, and raising up leaders. In order to accomplish that mission, we have tried to determine what things we should be doing, which will lead to those outcomes.

The same is true on a personal level: a few years ago, after a doctor visit in which I was told I was pre-diabetic, I decided I wanted to get in better shape. Since running seemed to give the best return on investment, I decided to do that. Rather than setting weight-loss goals, I’ve set running goals, knowing that if I run a certain amount, whether I lose weight or not, I will be in better shape.

Make sure that the “golden eggs” you’re after are godly and aligned with God’s heart and will for your life, and then determine what the “goose” is that will produce that outcome, and feed that goose.

Check out: Inputs and Outputs for Growth and Maturity

Moving beyond good intentions and wishful thinking

I have found that using my calendar is the best way to make sure I’m feeding the “goose”.

Reading through the Bible in a year is a great goal, as is family devotional time and committed church attendance. However, if you don’t use your calendar to block out times for those things, they won’t often move beyond the realm of good intentions. I have found that by putting things in my calendar, I am able to prioritize things according to my values, rather than being a slave to the “tyranny of the urgent.”

May God lead you, as you seek Him, to determine the right “golden eggs” to pursue, the right way to “feed the goose” and the ability to be intentional in doing so.

The Hurricane Has Become Human

N.T. Wright, in the introduction to his book, For All God’s Worth, writes:

How can you cope with the end of one world and the beginning of another one? Or the thought that the hurricane has become human, that fire became flesh, that life itself came to life and walked in our midst?

This, he goes on to say, is what Christianity is all about. And the question for us is: how ought we to respond to such news? The answer is: Worship. That is the only appropriate response.

What is he referring to?

In the Old Testament, when God appeared to the people it was often a terrifying experience. God appeared to Job in the form of a tempest (AKA “hurricane”). When God appeared to the people of Israel in the wilderness on Mt. Sinai, it was in the form of a consuming fire, essentially a fire-storm of lightning and fire on top of the mountain. The message was: God is inapproachable. To attempt to come near to Him would result in certain death… God even told Moses that if anyone would see Him in His glory, they would surely die.

And yet, the incredible message of Christianity is that in the person of Jesus, “the hurricane became human,” that the “fire became flesh” and “life itself came to life and walked in our midst.” And as a result of what he did, we have the promise and the hope of the end of this corrupt world and the advent of a new and better world to come.

To really understand this, Wright says, to take it seriously, means that the only appropriate response is “sheer unadulterated worship of the True and Living God and following Him wherever He leads.”

“Worship,” he says, “is not an optional extra for Christians, nor a self-indulgent religious activity. It is the basic Christian stance and the only truly human stance.”

Worship is not an optional extra for Christians, a self-indulgent religious activity. It is the basic Christian stance and the only truly human stance.

He goes on to say that many people view Christianity as a being something which gives them a sense of comfort and nostalgia. This should not actually be the case if someone really understands what Christianity is about. Rather than making you feel cozy, the gospel message is one that upturns every area of your life.

Wright says Christmas is a perfect example of this:

Take Christmas, for instance: a season of nostalgia, of carols and candles and firelight and happy children. But that misses the point completely. Christmas is not another reminder that the world is really quite a nice old place. It reminds us that the world is a shockingly bad old place, where wickedness flourishes unchecked, where children are murdered, where civilized countries make a lot of money by selling weapons to uncivilized ones so they can blow each other apart. Christmas is God lighting a candle; and you don’t light a candle in the room that’s already full of sunlight. You light a candle in the room that’s so murky that the candle, when lit, reveals just how bad things really are. The light shines in the darkness, says St. John, and the darkness has not overcome it.

Christmas then, and Christianity as a whole, is not about escapism, it’s about reality. It’s about how God has intervened in our world, and as a result, everything has and will change. The only proper response to this is to worship God for all he’s worth.

Part of that response, part of that worship, is to take up God’s mission. As John Piper says, “Mission exists because worship doesn’t.”

May we truly understand the weight of the Christian message: “the end of one world and the beginning of another” — and may we be moved towards this rhythm of response: Worship and Mission.

For more on worship and mission, check out these recent messages from White Fields Church:

Mission & Mental Health

I recently finished reading Sebastian Junger’s book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging.

It was recommended to me by someone at White Fields, who had read the book and found a surprising correlation between something I had taught at church and the main thesis of the book.

The sermon was one I had taught in our Church Matters series on the topic of “Mission.” (Audio of that message here: “So That They May Have Joy”). My text was John 17:13-19, where Jesus prays over his disciples at the end of the last supper. In that prayer, he says that he was given a mission by the father, and now – in order that his disciples might have his joy in fullness – Jesus is giving them his mission.

The point is: there is a correlation between mission and joy. Mission is a prerequisite for joy. If you want to experience joy, you need to have a mission. Without a mission, you can’t have joy.

This truth can be seen in the fact that children, when they think about what they want to be when they grow up, they think of their future vocation in terms of mission: they dream not of being office workers, they dream of being teachers, police officers, firefighters, missionaries, astronauts, doctors, veterinarians, etc. In other words: jobs full of adventure and serving other people. Why? Because they find joy in that.

And yet, our society encourages us to look out for ourselves, be practical, don’t bother trying to “save the world” – just worry about yourself. And here’s the irony of that: the more that you focus on yourself, the less significant your life is in the big picture, and the less joy you will have.

This same point is made by Sebastian Junger in Tribe. His big idea, which he backs up with evidence throughout the book, is that hardship, rather than being bad for us, is actually good for us – in fact, it’s one of the best things that can possibly happen to a person or a society.

And yet, the whole focus of our society has been to make life more and more comfortable and free of hardship; the result of which has been an incredible rise in mental health issues such as depression, anxiety and even violent crime. Times of crisis, such as terror attacks and natural disasters, indirectly have a positive affect on mental health in a society. The reason for this is that crisis causes people to band together and gives people a mission and a purpose to work towards and fight for, even sacrifice for. Without such a mission, people become unhealthy.

In other words: Junger is stating what the Bible has said for millennia: you need a mission. It’s a basic human requirement.

Here are some quotes from the book:

Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary. Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary. (xvii)

According to a global survey by the World Health Organization, people in wealthy countries suffer depression at as much as 8 times the rate they do in poor countries, and people in countries with large income disparities– like the United States– run a much higher lifelong risk of developing severe mood disorders. (p. 20)

[Poorer people experience lower rates of depression.] The reason for this seems to be that poor people are forced to share their time and resources more than wealthy people are, and as a result they live in closer communities. Financial independence can lead to isolation, and isolation can put people at a greatly increased risk of depression and suicide. (p. 20 – 21)

Modern society seems to emphasize extrinsic values (money, possessions, status) over intrinsic ones (sense of purpose, competence, moral/ethical/spiritual conviction), and as a result, mental health issues rise along with growing wealth. (p. 22)

Speaking of the extremely close bonds created by hardship in danger, “We are not good to each other. Our tribalism is to an extremely narrow group of people: our children, our spouse, maybe our parents is alienating, technical, cold, and mystifying. Our fundamental desire, as human beings, is to be close to others, and our society does not allow for that.” (p. 94)

The last time United States experienced a significant period of unity was briefly after the terrorist attacks of September 11. There were no rampage shootings for the next two years. The effect was particularly pronounced in New York City, where rates of violent crime, suicide, and psychiatric disturbances dropped immediately in many countries, antisocial behavior is known to decline during wartime. New York suicide rate dropped by about 20% in the six months following the attacks, the murder rate dropped by 40%, and pharmacist saw no increase in the number of first-time patients filling prescriptions for anti-anxiety and antidepressant medication. (p. 115-116)

I agree with Junger’s thesis and much (not all) of his analysis, but – unsurprisingly – he does not give a solution. The only part of Junger’s analysis which I disagree with is that he chalks everything up to human evolution, whereas I, as a Christian, believe that the need for mission is part of God’s design in creating us. That aside, the main idea of the book is absolutely correct – and the Bible has been teaching these things for millennia, AND giving the solution!

In fact, there are so many verses in the Bible which relate to this subject, that I only have space here for a few:

But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.
But as for you, O man of God, flee these things. Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith. (1 Timothy 6:9-12)

we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Romans 5:3-5)

Furthermore, in Christ, we have been given a mission – THE mission – which really matters and is worth living for and dying for and sacrificing for, and all of us are called to play a role in it – no matter what our vocation. It is the only mission which ultimately matters; it is the only mission which will ultimately save the world, and we have full confidence that it will succeed, because we’ve already been told how the story ends…

In order to have joy, you need a mission. Embrace Jesus and get engaged in his mission.

And a final thought: How did Jesus design his mission to be accomplished? Through the church. That’s one of the reasons why church matters… to God, to you, and to the world.

Upcoming at White Fields

We’ve got a few things happening at White Fields Church in Longmont, Colorado that I wanted to let you know about:

Tomorrow we will be starting a new series called “Church Matters” in which we will be taking four weeks to talk about church: why it matters to God, to us and to the world. We’ll be studying the Bible to see God’s vision for the church, and what therefore we should be about.

White Fields Community Church fényképe.

There is a great local company that helps us with some of our graphic designs: CryBaby Design. Check them out and hit them up if you’re looking for someone to help with graphic design, branding or web design.

We also have a great administrative assistant on our staff who does some design and media work for us, like the following graphic for our upcoming Outdoor Worship Service on August 13, 2017 at 10 a.m.

download_20170805_142709

If you are in or around Longmont, we’d love to have you join us!

Finally, here is a video preview of what’s happening tomorrow at White Fields. Our mission team we recently sent to Hungary to work with the church that we planted years ago is now back and will be giving an update about what God did through them.

We also have some friends in town who are missionaries in Athens, Greece: Travis and Kristen Spencer, who will be giving a presentation after service about their ministry there.

Here’s that video:

The Problem with Evangelism

I came across this video from Penn Jillette which I found very compelling. Penn Jillette is the “Penn” of the comic/illusionist team Penn and Teller, both of whom are avowed atheists who use their platform as comedians and magicians to promote atheism.

In this video Penn talks about how after a show he was approached by a very polite and sincere man who gave him a Bible as a gift and sought to evangelize him.

Rather than being upset or offended by this, Penn says this:

“I’ve always said, you know, that I don’t respect people who don’t proselytize. I don’t respect that at all. If you believe that there’s a heaven and hell, and people could be going to hell, or not getting eternal life or whatever, and you think that, well, it’s not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward…

How much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize? How much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them that? I mean, if I believed beyond a shadow of a doubt that a truck was coming at you, and you didn’t believe it, and that truck was bearing down on you, there is a certain point where I tackle you. And this is more important than that…

This guy cared enough about me to proselytize.”

Here’s the whole video:

I respect Penn for having the intellectual integrity to say this.

Because the problem with evangelism is that in Western society it is considered extremely presumptuous to claim that other people need to change what they believe and believe what you believe or else they will be lost. But the problem is, that this belief is inherent to Christianity. To remove it would be to remove its very heart.

If Jesus came to be a “Savior” who “saves” the “lost,” and to be a disciple of Jesus is to be sent on His mission, which is to seek and to save the lost, then to not evangelize is to betray the very heart of Christianity.

There are a lot of people who look at Christianity and say: “That’s a nice religion with a lot of really nice teachings and great principles. I love the community aspect of it; I respect the teachings about family, and morality and putting others first. But the one part I don’t like is how narrow it is. How presumptuous to claim that you are on a mission from God to save the world by converting people to believe what you believe!
When it comes to mission, I’m okay with you going to help poor people in developing countries by improving their standard of living — but why do you have to try to proselytize them?!”

There are even many Christians who would say, “I love learning about the Bible, and taking the sacraments and worshiping — but I don’t like that part about Christianity where we are always being told to go out and convert the world to what we believe!”

The problem with evangelism is that there are so many voices in our society today which tell us that the idea that you can be on a mission from God to change and save the world is at best: naive, and at worst: terribly arrogant. So instead, you should just privatize your beliefs: focus on your own life and leave everybody else alone.

But the problem with evangelism is that you cannot be a Christian and not care about evangelism, because the command to be on this mission comes straight from the mouth of Jesus.

“As the Father sent me, now I send you!   Go into all the world!  Preach the Gospel!   Make disciples of all nations — teach everybody to obey all that I have commanded you!”

That may not be popular – but it’s straight from the mouth of Jesus. And, to be a faithful follower of Jesus Christ means you can’t ignore what he says.

It is encouraging to me to hear this coming from a person, in Penn Jillette, who does not (yet) believe, but has the intellectual integrity to admit that in order to live according to one’s beliefs, a Christian should share the gospel with others.

Evangelism and Street Witnessing Now Illegal in Russia

From Assemblies of God and Christianity Today:

Late on the afternoon of July 7, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed into law legislation against terrorism and extremism. An amendment in this law restricts religious practice in a way that is considered the most restrictive measure in post-Soviet history.

The amendments, including laws against sharing faith in homes, online, or anywhere but recognized church buildings, go into effect July 20.

Christians wishing to share their faith must secure government permits through registered religious organizations. Even with such permits, they will not be allowed to witness anywhere besides registered churches or religious sites. Churches that rent rather than owning their facilities may be forcibly disbanded.

This decision will severely restrict missionary work and the ministry of local churches in Russia.

Proposed by United Russia party lawmaker Irina Yarovaya, the law appears to target religious groups outside the Russian Orthodox church. Because it defines missionary activities as religious practices to spread a faith beyond its members, “if that is interpreted as the Moscow Patriarchate is likely to, it will mean the Orthodox Church can go after ethnic Russians but that no other church will be allowed to,” according to Frank Goble, an expert on religious and ethnic issues in the region.

If passed, the anti-evangelism law carries fines up to US $780 for an individual and $15,500 for an organization. Foreign visitors who violate the law face deportation.

Russia has already moved to contain foreign missionaries. The “foreign agent” law, adopted in 2012, requires groups from abroad to file detailed paperwork and be subject to government audits and raids. Since then, the NGO sector has shrunk by a third, according to government statistics.

Sergey Ryakhovsky, head of the Protestant Churches of Russia, and several other evangelical leaders called the law a violation of religious freedom and personal conscience in a letter to Putin posted on the Russian site Portal-Credo.

“If it will come to it, it’s not going to stop us from worshiping and sharing our faith,” wrote Sergey Rakhuba, president of Mission Eurasia. “The Great Commission isn’t just for a time of freedom.”

Pray for the believers in Russia and for the missionaries who go to serve there.

Street witnessing was illegal in the first century, in the time of the Book of Acts, as were Christian gatherings. Such restrictions only caused the church to grow!

Please join me in praying for the gospel to spread throughout Russia despite these restrictions, and for the believers there to be emboldened to share their faith whatever the cost.

What Makes Someone a Missionary?

I spent 10 years in Hungary as a missionary. I had a visa and several legal papers for my residence there which stated on them that I was a missionary. Furthermore, I was sent out and supported by a number of churches who supported as a missionary.

This having been the case, I have put a lot of thought over the years into what it is that makes someone a “missionary”. 

I remember working alongside Hungarians in Hungary, doing the same work – and yet I carried the title of missionary, and they were just Christians who were serving the Lord. Every now and then, some of them would say that they too were missionaries then, since they were doing the same work. But what about the other Christians in Hungary who were not with our organization, who did similar work? Were they also missionaries? They didn’t seem to covet that title, but were content to consider their service simply completely normal Christian behavior.  Some Hungarians we worked with received financial support from churches in the West so that they could serve full time at a church. Did that make them missionaries, even though they were serving in their home country or culture?

Some missions organizations use the term “native missionaries” and raise funds in wealthier countries to support national workers who already know the culture and language of a place. The idea is that with the proper training and some financial support to free them up to do the work, these local Christian workers will be able to reach the places where they live more effectively than foreign missionaries. This is especially popular in countries which do not give visas to foreign missionaries. Is the word “missionary” appropriate in this case? 

What makes someone a missionary?

One time when my wife and I had come back from Hungary to visit family and supporters, we were in Carlsbad, CA, and at the beach some young people, probably in their early 20’s,  approached us and started talking about Jesus. They were evangelizing – and when we told them we were Christians, they told us that they had come from somewhere in the Midwest as missionaries to California. They hadn’t been sent by any church community, but believed they were called and so they had come. Does that make you a missionary?

When I moved to Longmont I knew some people who said that they were missionaries to Longmont, and raised support for their living expenses and various ministry endeavors, so that they could be free to pursue these things full-time. These particular people had grown up in Longmont and felt called to serve God in their hometown. 

What makes someone a missionary?

Something that has often been proclaimed in evangelical circles is that all Christians are called to be “missionaries” and that the work of missionaries is not something which only needs to happen in far off places with developing economies, there is need for evangelism and outreach in wealthy countries, including the United States as well. One bookmark I saw said: “You don’t have to cross the ocean to be a missionary, you just have to cross the street.”

So what are we to make of all of this? What makes someone a missionary?

A little etymology helps to sort things out:

Missio = send. Thus, to be a missionary is to be someone who is sent.

There is a sense in which all Christians have been sent by Jesus to carry out his mission, which he received from the Father, in his mission field, which is the entire world.

“”For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” – John‬ ‭3:16‬ ‭ESV‬‬

“As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” – ‭John‬ ‭17:18‬ ‭ESV‬‬

“Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” – ‭‭John‬ ‭20:21‬ ‭ESV‬‬

However, some are sent and supported by a local body of believers, led by a sense of calling from God, like Paul and Barnabas in Acts ch 13. It is clear from the Book of Acts, that Paul had an ongoing relationship with his “sending church” in Antioch, returning there after each of his missionary journeys. It seems there there was an accountability, and probably some degree of financial support from the church there which had sent Paul out. 

Here’s how I sort it out: All Christians are called by be “on mission” with God, in his mission field, which is the entire world. In fact, to be on mission is an essential and inherent part of what it means to be a Christian. Therefore, it should be normal for all Christians to do the work of a missionary wherever they live, whether it is their home or not. This is the NORMAL Christian life.

And yet, I feel that we should preserve the significance of the word “missionary” for those who are sent out on a mission by a local body of believers to another place, following the leading of God. There is a way in which to use the word missionary to loosely diminishes the sacrifices and the unique challenges faced by those who leave home and country and follow God’s leading to go to another place, having had a local body of believers confirm this by sending them out. Similarly, there is a way in which the concept of the priesthood of all believers can be taken to a degree which detracts from the significance of a calling to be a pastoral overseer. While we are all called to minister and we are all called to be on mission, these titles point to particular roles.

There is an interesting place in Paul’s second letter to Timothy, where Paul tells Timothy: “Do the work of an evangelist.” (2 Timothy 4:5)  Paul, in Ephesians 4, mentions the “office” or official role in the church of “evangelist” – in other words, it seems that there were some people in the church who had this title. However, it would seem that even though this was not Timothy’s official title or role, Paul was encouraging him to do the work of an evangelist nonetheless. 

I believe the same applies in regard to the discussion of the term “missionary” or “pastor”. If you are a Christian, you may not be an officially sanctioned “missionary” – but you are called to do the work of a missionary nevertheless! You may not be a pastor, but you are still called to do the work of a pastor in your interactions with other people.

Was Paul Suicidal?

Recently at White Fields I have been teaching through Paul’s Letter to the Philippians in a study titled, The Pursuit of Happiness.

This past Sunday I taught on Paul’s famous saying: “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain” – and I explained how the gospel gives new meaning to our lives and it redefines what death means for us. Audio of that message can be found here.

In that sermon, I didn’t get to what Paul says after that famous phrase. Here’s the rest:

For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again. (Philippians 1:21-26)

A reader of this blog sent me a message this week about this passage:

I have always wondered if Paul was experiencing a period of depression when he wrote this epistle. What he says in verse 1:22, “yet what I shall choose I cannot tell” even makes me consider that he was in some ways considering “suicide”. I know that sounds preposterous, and I’m not suggesting that he actually thought of killing himself but rather maybe purposely doing something that would result in his death. In todays world it might be called “suicide-by-cop”. It seems as he continues through the remainder of the chapter that he convinces himself that it is better to remain for the benefit of others. It could be that he was just experiencing a time when his death seemed imminent and he was preparing the readers for that eventuality, but I think that he was experiencing a great amount of stress during this time. As always, he was able, through the Spirit, to overcome his stress and turn it into a beautiful, encouraging letter. I believe it probable that all men of great faith experience times of doubt or fear brought on by the enemy.

That’s an interesting thought. Certainly Paul was facing dire circumstances, and I fully agree with the final sentence, but I wouldn’t go so far as to agree that Paul might have been having suicidal thoughts – even to the degree of doing something that might provoke someone else to kill him.

To me, the tone of the letter is one of triumph in the face of harsh circumstances, even death.

I believe that what’s going through Paul’s mind as he writes those words is that he wants to explain something important to the Philippians: That although as Christians, the ultimate hope of the Gospel is the hope of eternal life in paradise with God, that should never minimize the purpose that God has for our lives here on Earth.

This seems to have been a problem amongst some of the early Christians. 2 Thessalonians was written, in part, to let the Christians know that Jesus had not yet returned, that the Parausia, the Second Coming, was still to come – but that as we await Jesus’ imminent return, we should not be inactive;  we should still work hard. That’s why he says:

If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. (2 Thessalonians 3:10-12)

The context of that, is that the Thessalonians were eagerly expecting the return of Jesus any day – as all early Christians did, and as it seems that Jesus intended all Christians to do, which is the reason for his vagueness about when his return will take place.

The point is this: We should not have a Christianity in which we encourage people to just believe in Jesus and then hang on and wait for death! I think Paul wanted to Philippians to understand that: that Christianity isn’t only about going to heaven when you die, it’s about living this life for Christ – as much as, and as long as possible.

It’s not only that because of the Gospel, DEATH IS GAIN – but also: because of the Gospel, TO LIVE IS CHRIST!

Another reason why I think Paul was not discouraged when he wrote to the Philippians is because he closes the letter by saying:

Greet every saint in Christ Jesus. The brothers who are with me greet you. All the saints greet you, especially those of Caesar’s household. (Philippians 4:21-22)

What this means is that members of Caesar’s household, including the Praetorian Guard (members of which were chained to Paul 24 hrs a day in 6 hr shifts), were becoming Christians through his being there in jail. I think Paul was feeling particularly encouraged after facing years of discouragement prior to this. Finally he was starting to see some fruit and the purpose for which God must have allowed this series of terrible difficulties and injustices happen to him. Many of us may never get to see that in our difficulties, but when we do it helps to encourage us that God is indeed in control and using all of the frayed strands to create a beautiful tapestry.