The world has a lot to say about hearts. We can be heartsick, heartbroken, half-hearted, all heart, hard-hearted, tender-hearted; we can lead with our heart or follow our heart, wear our heart on our sleeve, or have a change of heart. We can have a heart of gold, or a heart of stone. Our heart can be in the right place, or it can wander.
The Bible has a lot to say about our hearts as well. In Proverbs, we are told to guard our hearts above all else.
Our hearts are precious, but they are also fragile and fickle. Our hearts can be led astray, bruised, crushed, and hardened by sin– not just our own sin, but sins that are committed against us. And hardened hearts are not immune to damage– they don’t become stronger, just more rigid and brittle. We live in a world of damaged hearts. And damaged hearts are prone to damage other hearts.
God does not want us to lock up our hearts or wrap them in barbed wire, but He does want us to be watchful and active in protecting our hearts from the enemy. God created us with emotions, but not every emotion should be indulged or shared with others. We are told to rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn. But we are never told to encourage jealousy, anger, depression, envy, apathy, rage, boastfulness, or hatred. Letting these emotions control our actions can only lead to further pain, destruction, sorrow, and heartache.
We need to guard our hearts, not only from external threats, but from internal deception. We think we know our own hearts– we tend to trust them more than we trust God, or His Word, or the godly advice of friends or family. We act at the prompting of our emotions– sometimes in direct conflict with God’s Word and Wisdom, and to our shame and pain.
When we pray, God’s spirit can heal our heartache, and give us the strength of heart to reach out and heal others. But we must be careful not to attempt healing others in our own power and wisdom. Our heart may seem to be “in the right place,” but often, that’s how we got hurt in the first place!
Tender hearts, broken hearts, even hard hearts– God can heal them all and use them to heal others. That’s because God’s heart is perfect–and on Calvary, He poured it out to rescue you, redeem you, and restore you.
I know some people who refuse to pray aloud in groups. Some of them are just modest or shy, or they get tongue-tied and feel awkward. But some of them refuse because they feel their prayers are “inadequate.” They wish their prayers were eloquent or flowery, righteous-sounding or inspiring, but they don’t believe their prayers are “enough.”
But God listens with perfect ears. He hears beyond our words. Simple, humble prayers– spoken or silent–are His favorite kind!
We often waste our time trying to impress God (or others) with our words. But God isn’t waiting to be impressed– He’s waiting to spend real time with His child!
When children are first learning to speak, we delight in their coo-ing and lisping. As they grow, we sometimes tune out their babbling, their stories, their griping, and their whining. But as the years go by, we miss hearing their voices, and we long to have them call and talk to us– even for a few minutes.
God never tunes out our babbling, but when we don’t pray, He misses the sound of our voices and the sharing of our thoughts, just like any parent would.
Never discount the power and the value of simple prayers. God doesn’t!
We like to point out scripture that assures us that God will hear (and answer) our prayers. We like to remember God’s promises of blessing and peace and grace. And we tend to ignore or forget that there are some prayers that God has said He will not hear or answer.
God will not answer prayers that are selfish, or hypocritical. He will not answer prayers offered in pride, self-righteousness, or unbelief (see Luke 18:9-14, and Hebrews 11:6). He will not listen to prayers offered by those who oppress the poor, those who worship idols, or those who practice violence. And He will not listen to the prayers of those who reject Him, and remain in sin. https://www.gty.org/library/questions/QA160/does-god-answer-the-prayers-of-unbelievers (Please note: I don’t totally agree with the general conclusion here, but there are several great references for the individual points..)
Please note that God does not say that He will not answer prayer based on WHO a person is–God does not refuse to answer prayers based on a person’s age, nationality, gender, physical health, mental health, height, weight, social status, or any other label, including their past religious affiliation! This means that a sincere prayer of a person who is seeking God may be heard ahead of (or instead of) a prideful prayer of someone who claims to be a Christ-follower.
God is sovereign and omniscient– He knows what is in each heart, and He answers, not according to who we are, but according to who HE is. And just as He can separate our sins “as far as the east is from the west” (Psalm 103:12), and “remember (our) sins no more”(Hebrews 8:12), He can choose not to hear prayers that are offered with wrong motives or offered in defiance of His sovereignty and holiness.
None of this takes away from the fact that God DOES hear and answer prayer…God LOVES to hear from anyone and everyone who seeks His face. Nothing external can separate you from His love. Come with your anger, questions, sorrows, pains, gratitude, hope; bring your failures, your fears, and your triumphs. But God, like a wise father, doesn’t suffer fools and fakers. Even if you can fool your neighbors, friends, family, or yourself, you cannot fool God. He doesn’t want a false narrative– He wants you as you really are. And He will listen with an everlasting love and compassion to all such prayers!
Does it ever feel like you spend your days “putting out fires?” Taking care of little problems before they become bigger problems? Never getting a chance to rest or relax before the next crisis hits? Trying to put out a fire that keeps getting out of hand?
Fires can become very dangerous very quickly. Experts advise that we shouldn’t try to stay and fight a fire for which we are not equipped–it puts you and others at far greater risk. There is a simple phrase that can help people survive and escape a house or building fire: Stop. Drop. And Roll. A similar phrase can be helpful in facing the spiritual and emotional “fires” we face: Stop. Drop. And Pray!
Stop! Often when we face trials, our first reaction is to rush in and try to “save” things– ourselves, our loved ones, our possessions, our pride…the list goes on. This is a natural reaction, but not always the wisest course. In the initial panic, we are likely to make poor judgments, and miss warning signs. With the best of intentions, we can make situations worse: maybe we don’t have the skills, the equipment, the authority, or the knowledge to offer salvation or safety. That doesn’t mean that we must walk away from danger, or fail to offer help when we are able to do so. But it means that we must remember that Salvation and Wisdom come from God.
Drop. Fire is an obvious danger, but smoke is a silent killer. We can see fire; we can feel the heat of it. But the smoke can immobilize us long before the flames reach us. Spiritually, we may be able to see obvious sins in others, but ignore the smoke of compromise and apathy in the air all around us. Smoke rises– just like pride, and arrogance, and denial. We need to be “on our knees” –lowly and humble– if we want to keep from getting choked and suffocated.
Pray! Pray with a heart to listen for good advice and obey. Sometimes, we need to stay still and wait; sometimes we need to flee! Sometimes we need to get involved; sometimes we need to walk away. We don’t need to know the next seven or eight steps, however. We need to do the next right thing– even if it seems insignificant in the face of the threat. What we can see is not always where the danger is greatest, nor where the help is most available.
Finally– Don’t wait until you are in danger to practice these steps or prepare for what may lie ahead. There is a popular but unbiblical phrase: “God helps those who help themselves.” But this is NOT what God says! God says that He will help those who humble themselves (Luke 14:11; James 4:10); those who seek Him (Psalm24:6; Amos 5:4); and those who believe (Mark 9:23; John 20:29).
Social media is a dangerous place these days. Everyone is an expert on something– pain, medicine, race relations, politics, religion… I’m an expert, too. I am an expert in my own opinion! I know all I ever need to know about how I feel, what I’ve experienced, how I would solve all the world’s problems, and what everyone else should know, do, and think.
And when I pray, I am an expert in what I want, and what God should do–right?
Turns out, the Bible disagrees with me. Prayer is not about telling God what I think He should do. And one of the things He doesn’t want me to do is go about telling everyone how much I know and how right I am about everything.
I know– it flies in the face of common thought and practice. But my words are not to be about how good I am, how smart I am, how righteous I am, how “woke” I am, or how tolerant I am. My words shouldn’t be all about ME. When I do speak (or write), it should be for one of four reasons:
To praise– to bring honor and glory to God for who He is and all that He has done. To rehearse and proclaim His good deeds and righteous acts so that others may hear and praise Him, too.
To encourage, build up, edify, or heal others. Words have the power to bring hope, energy, confidence, light, and love. They also have the power to destroy, devalue, and discourage. Finally, words have the power to suck energy, waste time, and bring confusion and chaos. When I speak carelessly, selfishly, or foolishly, it does nothing to build up others. (And it probably doesn’t do me much good, either!)
To speak truth and stand up for righteousness–not in an arrogant way, and not to win “points”, but to honestly and firmly defend what I know to be true. I must realize that there will be others who will stand in opposition to the truth and refuse to hear what I say. Others will misconstrue and misrepresent the truth. It is NOT for me to make them believe– only to stand up and give voice to the truth when I see it under attack.
To express unique and creative thoughts, which is part of praising my maker. Everyone has SOMETHING to say– something that expresses their inner thoughts and unique perspectives. That should cause me to take great joy. And it should cause me to take the same joy in helping others find their voice and share their stories and ideas. Not because I’m “right” about the world, or because they are “right” in their ideas. But because God gave each of us a voice. I can listen and not agree; they can do the same. But sometimes, in the act of listening, we do more to come to understanding and agreement than we ever do by speaking. And in being allowed to speak freely, we might listen to ourselves more carefully, too.
Jesus spoke wonderful parables, deep and thoughtful prayers, piercing sermons, and tender words of encouragement and love. But He also listened–not only to the critics and enemies, but to those who hid in the shadows; those who were outcast and oppressed; those whose voices were drowned out by the crowds. He was RIGHT! More than anyone ever, He had the right to be heard…He chose to listen as well as speak. Jesus was more interested in being Himself than being “right.” More interested in showing love than showing off. More interested in understanding than overpowering. Jesus spoke–but He also laughed, and wept, and lived, and listened.
There is a sickness in our world. Call it racism, or bigotry, or prejudice. Call it power, or oppression, or tyranny. Trace its roots to fear, to greed, to a lust for power, to pride, to hatred… Expose it as government overreach, police brutality, white supremacy, corruption, indifference to the suffering of others. Protest it with signs, looting, rioting, tear gas, lines of police officers in riot gear, shouting, and anger. Lots of anger.
There is not enough anger in the world to heal it.
Anger is a natural and even God-given emotion. God gets angry; even wrathful. It is right to be angry at injustice and hatred; division, greed, apathy, inequality, brutality, oppression, poverty, sickness, and death– they are unnatural, wrong, maddening.
But anger, even justified anger, cannot heal. It cannot build up, bind wounds, create peace. Anger feels powerful. It is active, dynamic, it tears down and threatens some of the powers that have, in their time, threatened us or those we love. It draws mobs that seem to share our anger– it looks like solidarity, even unity. It makes headlines. It creates “buzz.” It feels righteous and “right.” And it creates change. In the short term, anger “works.” Surging anger forces the oppressor to be quiet, go into hiding, make some small concessions…for now. Maybe they will pass legislation. Maybe they will give lip service to certain ideals. For now.
God understands anger– he even shares anger. Jesus even got angry. But God does not sanction letting our anger spill into vengeance, violence, and retaliation of sin for sin. Our anger does not give us the right to judge others, oppress others, steal destroy, or condemn.
The New Life 17 Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. 18 They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. 19 They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. 20 But that is not the way you learned Christ!— 21 assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, 22 to put off your old self,[f] which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, 23 and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, 24 and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. 25 Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. 26 Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27 and give no opportunity to the devil. 28 Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need. 29 Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. 31 Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. 32 Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.
If you have read this far, some of you will say that I am being unfair– speaking out against protesters, but not against the evil they are protesting. And if I have never spoken out against injustice, if I have never called upon people to seek peace, never lifted my hand to help my neighbors, never encouraged, never offered help, never shared in others’ grief, then I am the worst of hypocrites. Stop reading.
Anger asks us to act NOW– it asks us to abandon patience, prayer, and the promises of God, and take matters into our own hands–in our own power, in the moment, for the moment. And it tells us that we can and should act in the place of God to achieve what we believe to be His ends. Often, it asks us to act with little information, no time to reflect, and at the behest of others, who wish to use our anger to further their ends. Anger tells us that we can force evil people to surrender their power without being corrupted by it. And anger tells us that it has the only solution– the only action– that can bring peace.
Does this mean that no one should be angry? That we should do nothing active in the face of evil? ABSOLUTELY NOT! We should speak truth to our neighbors– not just the truth of our anger, but the truth of our hope for justice, our dependence on God, our love for our brothers and sisters, and our need for Mercy. We must not turn a blind eye to injustice, but we must work toward justice– not just vengeance. We must not sit silent in the face of bigotry, but we must love extravagantly– even those who seem unlovable and unwilling to love us in return. We must not silence those who are angry and hurt, but listen with respect and compassion–as we would wish to be heard.
And we MUST pray! Pray for the grieving; pray for our enemies; pray for justice; pray for peace. Pray even when we don’t have the answers– especially when we don’t have the answers. Pray–fervently, feverishly– pray on our knees and as we pace in frustration. Pray like we’ve never prayed before. Pray until we break a sweat; until we hunger and thirst for GOD’S presence on every street corner, and in every household, and at every riot, and every government office. Those who would silence our prayers and hold them in disdain are trying to silence the power of God Himself! They cannot win, but they can keep us from sharing in God’s ultimate victory by marching in a fake war, instead of defending the Kingdom. We must take our anger to God and let Him show us the path to justice, action, peace, and healing. He may ask us to step out in ways we never imagined–loving our enemy; sharing the gospel; standing in solidarity with those we used to fear; forgiving those who have hurt us; asking forgiveness from those we have hurt.
There is not enough anger to heal the world. There is enough Love to save it!
When I was a child, I was something of a picky eater. I didn’t like peas, or beets, or spinach , I wasn’t fond of lumpy mashed potatoes, and I didn’t like peanut butter sandwiches, or mustard on my hamburger. Of course, my parents were not sympathetic– I had to at least try some of my vegetables or potatoes, and, like it or not, I often found a peanut butter sandwich in my school lunch bag. I didn’t have to add mustard to a hamburger at home, but if it came on my burger at the drive-in, I either had to eat it with mustard, try to scrape it off, or go without! I didn’t have to be enthusiastic about dinner, but I was taught to be grateful for it.
Now that I am an adult, I still am not fond of peas, though I have learned to like beets and spinach. I don’t eat mashed potatoes very often, lumpy or otherwise. I eat the occasional peanut butter sandwich, and I actually love mustard on my hamburgers. I have learned to like foods that I didn’t like as a child, and learned that certain foods (even peas) are good for me, whether I like them or not.
I also learned to pray as a child–we had grace at meals, family prayer time, corporate prayer at church, and bedtime prayers. I learned that sometimes prayer is spontaneous and filled with praise; other times, prayer is dragged out of pain, or anger, pride, or shame. Prayer isn’t always “palatable.” But, like eating, it is necessary and good.
Just as I needed to learn not to be a picky eater, I have to practice prayer in all its aspects. God doesn’t just want the sweet prayers of praise that I am eager to sing out. He doesn’t just want the earnest requests I set before Him. He wants the rotten, stringy, overripe confession that I’ve been hanging on to. He wants the tormented “Why?” when things are falling apart. He wants me to chew on the unanswered requests and unfulfilled longings, and swallow the pride that insists on having its own way. He wants to savor those prayers when I can’t even find the words, but I come to Him anyway, hungry for answers, but even more thirsty for His presence.
Prayer isn’t always easy. It isn’t always “satisfying” in its daily practice. But it gives life and nourishment for the soul.
So I ask myself today: What am I praying about? What do I need to bring to God in prayer? What have I held back? What have I stopped praying for (and why)? Who has been on my heart or mind, but not in my prayers? What have I been trying to do in my own way that I haven’t shared with God in prayer? What does God know about me that I haven’t acknowledged? What praise or thanks have I withheld today? What worries have I borrowed from tomorrow?
What prayer practice do I need to try, or try again? It may take some stretching, but in the end, it’ll be better than peas!
I was re-reading a familiar passage in the gospel of John recently, and I was struck by a truth I had missed before. In the first part of John 8, there is a story about a woman caught in adultery https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John+8%3A1-11&version=NIV I have read this story many times, and even heard sermons preached on this passage. What struck me this time wasn’t exactly new material, or a new reading, but a new understanding of a detail that was there all along.
The story begins with Jesus teaching a crowd of people in the temple courts in Jerusalem. His teaching is interrupted by a group of Pharisees and teachers of the law. They have a woman caught in the act of adultery, and they come to Jesus asking his opinion about stoning her. They obviously know the laws of Moses, because they cite them. But they cite only a certain portion of the law, and they want Jesus to weigh in (so they can use his own words to trap him).
Jesus turns the tables, and passively bends down to write letters in the sand. He says only, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” One by one, the accusers and the crowd– everyone except Jesus–melts away. Finally, Jesus asks who is left to condemn the woman. There is no one. Jesus refuses to condemn her, and sends her on her way, telling her to “Go, and sin no more.”
Four details I want to highlight in this story:
There was already a crowd around Jesus before the Pharisees and teachers arrived. They did not bring this woman to Jesus to get an honest answer to a question, or to bring about justice (for that, they should have brought both her AND the man involved!); they brought her to a very public spot to humiliate her and trap Jesus. She was a pawn in a political and religious game, and she was guilty of a crime that was punishable by death. She was accused and forced to stand before a crowd to be condemned without a trial. So often, I read this passage, and my focus is on Jesus and the woman and the Pharisees– I forget that there is a crowd of ordinary people being “played” by the Pharisees for their own purposes.
Jesus never answers the question at hand. According to the laws of Moses, the woman should be stoned. That is the point the Pharisees want Jesus to address. They have set him up. If he agrees with their interpretation of the laws of Moses, he should insist that the woman be stoned. But this will be in violation of the Roman laws, and will lead to Jesus being arrested by the Romans. But if Jesus upholds the Roman law, he will be turning his back on centuries of Jewish tradition dating back to Moses. The problem is that the Pharisees have resorted to some half-truths. The laws of Moses DO speak of stoning; they speak of adultery being punishable by death– for both the man and the woman involved. However, the Priests and leaders of Israel have not followed this practice. King David committed adultery with Uriah’s wife. Neither one was stoned or condemned to death. There are no records of other adulterous couples being stoned throughout Israel’s history. So it is rather disingenuous for the Pharisees to bring this case to Jesus and ask him to speak judgment where they will not. Jesus knows this is not about actual justice; it isn’t really about the law of Moses– because they are not following it themselves! By turning the tables back on them, Jesus exposes their hypocrisy and failure in front of the very crowds they are trying to impress with their clever plans.
One by one, the woman’s accusers melt away. But it’s not just them, it’s the crowd of ordinary people– the ones who were likely riled up by the Pharisees and teachers. Think about the mob mentality–a guilty woman, caught in the act and brought before a teacher with moral authority–there is nothing like scandal to get a crowd of anonymous bystanders worked up and ready for blood. Yet, Jesus’ gentle reminder that any of us could be found “guilty” of something and condemned to shame and punishment puts out the flame of anger and resentment, and causes the mob to evaporate. No one is left to accuse, to curse, to insult, to humiliate, or condemn.
Finally, it’s down to Jesus and the sinful woman. There IS one person there who is without sin– one person who has the right to throw stones, to judge, to punish. Yet he reaches out with compassion and mercy. He is still righteous– he doesn’t shrug off the woman’s sin. He doesn’t say, “Well, that’s no big deal. Let’s just pretend that never happened.” or “I think you’ve learned a valuable lesson here today, young lady.” He simply says, “Neither do I condemn you. Go now and leave your life of sin.”
Next time, I want to address each of these details from a practical standpoint in light of modern circumstances, and what lessons I am taking from Jesus’ actions.
These are fearful days. As I write this, the world is reeling from the Coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic. There are travel bans and business closures; people are hoarding hand sanitizer, soap, and toilet tissue, bread and bottled water.
But what do we really fear? The Coronavirus is dangerous– even potentially deadly–but so is the “regular” flu (to a lesser extent). Many people will suffer from the Coronavirus for a few days, only to recover and return to “normal”life. The economic reverses and closures, while temporarily devastating, will come to an end, as well.
In many ways, the real fear is, as Franklin Roosevelt once said, “fear, itself.” Panicked people hoarding basic supplies leave us wondering if we will face food shortages, or be left without any way to protect ourselves from the spread of this disease. We fear the rumors, the exaggerated stories, the dire possibilities and predictions. We fear over-reacting and inviting unnecessary dangers, and we fear under-reacting and taking unnecessary risks. We even begin to fear those close to us– are they telling us the truth? Are they giving us helpful advice? Do we trust their sources of information?
In the midst of this atmosphere, there are three mistakes I think we need to avoid as Christians:
Panic– the world around us reacts with fear. We are told, again and again in scripture, not to be afraid, not to worry, and not to fret. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” (Psalm 23:4) Why can we keep calm when the rest of the world succumbs to fear? “For Thou art with me..” (v. 5a) No set of circumstances– even a worldwide pandemic– are a match for God’s omniscience, His power, or His mercy. We may not know the future, but God does. He knows how this chapter of the story ends. He knows what we need, and how to supply it; He knows every cell of our bodies, and every virus in the atmosphere. And, while He may not supernaturally stop this disease in its tracks, He will give us wisdom to respond in ways that may limit the spread and severity of COVID-19– and even teach us lessons to face the next crisis.
Over-confidence–the Psalmist says, “I will fear no evil.” That doesn’t mean that I will take no caution, make no plan to protect my loved ones and myself, or feel no concern over adverse conditions. It is very tempting to put on a show of bravado in the face of worldly panic; to project confidence in ourselves and disdain for danger. Our confidence doesn’t lie in ignoring the very real dangers and struggles ahead– our confidence lies in knowing that God is ALWAYS in control. We should have a healthy concern in the weeks ahead. We should not berate those who express worries–we should direct them toward our source of comfort and strength, not waste time bragging or sneering.
Isolation– times of crisis bring out the best or worst in us. Panic and over-confidence can make us step back and close ourselves off to those in need. We need to be wise to ways that we can offer practical help and spiritual guidance to those around us. How can we offer to share burdens? Ease financial difficulties? Help deliver food or medicine to those in quarantine? Offer shelter or hospitality to those displaced by quarantine or travel bans? Help those who are grieving or stressed?
Finally, notice that the Psalmist singles out the fear of evil. Panic will bring evil in its wake. Evil will need to be confronted and checked by those willing to fight it. We need to confront those who try to take advantage of others; we need to hold thieves and liars and fear-mongers accountable, as we combat their message of greed and panic. Not because we are here to judge; but because we are here to spread Grace and Peace, Blessing and Kindness. May we be more contagious than Coronavirus in bringing God’s power and Love to those who need it so desperately at this time.
I see a lot of articles, posts, and religious sites as I wander around the internet. And there has been a lot written and shared lately about the word Christian getting a “bad rap.” Many writers and church goers are no longer comfortable calling themselves Christians. They don’t want to be identified with “bad” Christians– hypocrites, political extremists, etc., who loudly and proudly use the label while treating others with contempt, and generally acting like bullies and/or clowns. The growing trend is to use the term “Christ-follower” to describe a lifestyle that seeks to mirror that of Jesus Christ during His life on earth.
Proponents of this practice point out that Jesus never called His followers “Christians.” Instead, He consistently invited people to “Follow me.” The term “Christian” is associated with the earliest Gentile churches and with the scattering of the persecuted church across Judea, Samaria, and Asia Minor. The term originated in Antioch a few years after Jesus’ resurrection:
19 Now those who were scattered after the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, preaching the word to no one but the Jews only. 20 But some of them were men from Cyprus and Cyrene, who, when they had come to Antioch, spoke to the Hellenists, preaching the Lord Jesus. 21 And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number believed and turned to the Lord. 22 Then news of these things came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent out Barnabas to go as far as Antioch. 23 When he came and had seen the grace of God, he was glad, and encouraged them all that with purpose of heart they should continue with the Lord. 24 For he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were added to the Lord. 25 Then Barnabas departed for Tarsus to seek Saul. 26 And when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. So it was that for a whole year they assembled with the church and taught a great many people. And the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch. (emphasis added)
Christian was not a positive or honorable label for the early followers of Jesus Christ. There are still many places in the world where the label “Christian” invites arrests, beatings, and death threats. There are places where the name “Christian” invites scorn and derision. What has changed (or seems to have changed) in the intervening years is that we see and hear of more and more places in the world where the label “Christian” brings up images of sneering protesters condemning gays or smug white faces spouting self-righteous phrases to justify greed, racism, and/or injustice. “Christians” are not just unwanted or misunderstood by others–Christians are unwanted by their own; misunderstood and misrepresented, at odds and at war with one another.
So what can be gained by followers of Jesus Christ in re-branding themselves as “Christ-followers?” After all, it’s just a name. In the 1960s, many Christians were condescendingly labeled “Jesus Freaks.” Jesus Freaks were viewed much like Hippies. They spoke of Peace and Love and Acceptance. They taught about kindness and unity. They were often young, and generally disillusioned with the older generation and its way of life. They acted a lot like Hippies; they just didn’t do as much experimenting with drugs and free sex. Much like the early Christians, they were labeled by those who dismissed their message and their way of life. They rejected traditional or mainstream Christianity, and were dismissed by many who called themselves Christians. Some were openly critical of previous generations of Christians. Many of those who wish to be called “Christ-followers” now are the descendants (or remnants) of the Jesus Freaks of the 60s. The mind set is very similar– disillusionment with others who have misused or abused the name of Christ, and a desire to “rescue” the reputation of the church.
There have been other groups across the centuries who have tried to re-brand and re-label their devotion to Jesus– God-fearers, Disciples, Reformers, Witnesses, Saints, Fellowships, etc.. And there is no command in Scripture that we must all call ourselves by a particular label.
But is seems odd to me that the very label, “Christian,” that came about because of persecution, that came about as a derisive, sneering, condescending term, was embraced by those it sought to shame and intimidate. Why didn’t the original “Christians” re-brand themselves to make their cause less offensive? Why has this term, “Christian,” endured over the centuries?
I think there are a few very good reasons:
“Christians” bear the name of Christ, whatever other name they give themselves. When I say I am a Christian, I know that there are people who will compare me to others who make this claim. But I am not just a member of a group that likes the idea of Christ; I’m not just a Facebook follower of Christ, or a fan of Christ, or a student of Christ. Christ is my Lord; my life; my identity. Christ– Jesus the Christ, the Messiah. Not Joe Smith down the road who also attends my church, or a famous evangelist or Bible teacher, or even one of the Apostles, or Saints. Jesus– son of Mary and Joseph; Son of God and Son of Man. This same Christ was arrested, given a sham trial, condemned to be crucified like a common criminal, and hung, naked and tortured before a mocking crowd. He was humiliated, misunderstood, and abandoned by those who claimed to care the most. THAT is the name I willingly bear.
“Christian” is a label. I can label myself in any number of different ways– “Woman,” “American,” “Caucasian,” “College graduate.” But there are many others who can use those same labels. They may define what I am, but they don’t define who I am. I may be appalled (and I am, sometimes) at things other women do, at things other Americans say, at the history of Caucasians and their interactions with indigenous peoples in other parts of the world, at the snobbery of other college graduates…But I don’t say, “I’m no longer going be an American; I want to be known as a resident of the United States, but I have my own system of government and culture and language independent of those living in Missouri or Idaho or Chicago– they don’t represent who I am.” Of course they don’t represent who I am–they never did. We all, collectively, are Americans AND residents of the United States. I can’t decline to be a woman because I don’t like the way other women behave or speak. And I can’t choose to be “other than” a Christian…all I can do is give it another label.
Finally, who I am is not found in a name or title or label. It is the sum total of my character and the way I live my life. Jesus didn’t tell His disciples that they would be known by any particular name, but He did say they would be known and identified by their love: 34 A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. 35 By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35 NKJV). That doesn’t mean I have to approve of everything other “Christians” do– in fact, if they use the name Christian and do not have love for others, they prove they are liars– but it means that I must do everything in the name of Christ. I am a Christian first, before I am a woman or an American or any other label. That means that I am the co-heir and sister to a young man in India who has been rejected by his family and expelled from his school for being a Christian. I am an ambassador of Christ to the woman I meet in the grocery store whose children are taxing her patience and whose cart is blocking the aisle I want to enter. I am an example of Christ’s love to the young couple who have been victimized by other “Christians” because they are “different.” And I am a Christian in a world of “fake” Christians, and confused Christians, and faulty and very human Christians just like me, who need correction, mercy, justice, and wisdom to follow Christ, to die to self, and to bear the honor of His name. Ultimately, I can call myself a Christian, a Christ-follower, a Jesus Freak–any other label I want. Whether I AM a Christian or not will be determined by how I live, not what I call myself.
If you are a Christian reading this– how are you bearing His name today?