Spiritual Maturity and Response to Hardship

I’ve been thinking about two different responses to hardship that I’ve heard in the last couple of years. One was by someone who has been a brother for several years and had also been in church leadership for some time. The other was by someone who has been a sister for about three years. You might expect that the more mature response (in a spiritual sense) would be by the person who has been a Christian longer, but I’m sure most of us know very young-in-the-faith Christians who are more spiritually mature in some ways than people who have been Christians for many years.

The brother that I mentioned had an opportunity to talk with a non-Christian who told him something about her life experiences. When it became clear that he was a Christian, she became rather combative. Specifically, she told him about her mother, who had died within the past couple of years. Then she asked him if God was loving, why He had allowed her mother to die. The brother’s answer was, “I don’t know.” Period. When he told the story, I was expecting something like, “I don’t know, but…”

Sometimes in such a moment, we don’t know what to say, but then later, we realize how we could have responded differently. However, the brother seemed rather satisfied with his response; the main reason was that he hadn’t “offended” the woman in that moment. On the other hand, it also seemed as time went on that he didn’t really have the spiritual maturity to respond differently. Maybe that’s one of the reasons he is no longer in a position of church leadership.

When I heard the story, the first Scripture that came to mind was Luke 13:1-5. In verses 4-5, Jesus says, “Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them–do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” As this applies to the woman that my brother in Christ talked to: her mother was not “more guilty” than anyone else; after all, the entire human race is under the bondage of sin, but Jesus frees those who believe. This woman still had the chance to repent. Now, would I have quoted these verses to her in that moment? Probably not, but I would have said something like, “I don’t know about your mom, but I know that you still have the chance to trust Jesus Christ as your Savior and Lord.” In fact, in another very similar situation, that’s what I did. I don’t say this to boast, but simply to respond to I Peter 3:15, which says, “But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” I believe this verse applies to people who are just being combative as well as to people who are sincerely seeking answers.

At the outset, I mentioned two people, one of them a sister who has been a believer about three years. She experienced two rather extreme hardships in a short period of time. First, her husband died; then she developed cancer. She also has two young children. That kind of combination would be devastating to anyone, but here are some things that she said in her testimony last year:

“God allows certain situations to happen in our lives for us to examine how we respond. All these situations are allowed by God.

Despite my doubts, God used the opportunity to strengthen my faith, understanding His grace and mercy. He will strengthen me in time of weakness.

The hardship we endure is actually a disguise for His wonderful blessing.”

Wow, and wow! Frankly, if my wife were to die and I were to develop cancer soon afterward, I doubt I would have the spiritual maturity that this young sister has. And I don’t have young kids anymore, either! This sister came to saving faith during her hardships because of the love she experienced from the church that she and her kids had started attending. A couple in the church even offered to take in her children and raise them as their own if she died. (She didn’t; the Lord used doctors to completely eradicate her cancer.)

Maybe you think that I’m comparing apples to oranges because the brother I wrote about was not responding to his own hardship, while the sister was. However, the key point is spiritual maturity, not how closely the situations match. May the Lord give all of us discernment and understanding in how we respond to hardship, whether in our own lives or the lives of others, and whether those people are believers or not.

What Does God’s Judgment Look Like?

I’ve been thinking for months about writing this post, and having seen what has transpired so far in the new year, this seems like a good time.

To answer this question, let’s begin with Genesis 6-8, where we have the account of the flood. In Genesis 6:11-12, we read, “Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight and was full of violence. God saw how corrupt the earth had become, for all the people on earth had corrupted their ways.” Notice the word “corrupt(ed),” which appears three times. God sent a flood to wipe out all of mankind except for eight people: Noah and his family. Jumping ahead to Genesis 19, we see God destroying Sodom and Gomorrah with burning sulfur because of their pride, which manifested itself in gluttony, lack of concern for the poor, and homosexuality; Ezekiel 16:49-50 tells us, “Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and the needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen.” Only three people–righteous Lot and his two daughters–survived.

If you read the history of Israel throughout the Old Testament, you will see that again and again, God brings judgment on His people. Sometimes it takes the form of invading nations; sometimes plagues; and sometimes extreme drought and famine. There is also a startling, remarkable verse, Hosea 4:17, which says, “Ephraim [the northern ten tribes of Israel] is joined to idols; leave him alone!” (More on that later.)

God’s judgment in the Old Testament had the purpose of turning His people from their sins. However, stubborn Israel repeatedly returned to their sinful ways after being graciously delivered by the Lord. After repeatedly warning and judging His wayward people for hundreds of years, the Lord sent the northern ten tribes (collectively called Israel) into Assyrian captivity in 721 B.C. In 586 B.C., the Lord sent the southern two tribes (collectively called Judah) into Babylonian captivity. 70 years later, Judah was allowed to return to their land. (If you read Isaiah chapters 13-23 and Jeremiah chapters 46-51, you will see that the Lord also judged the other Old Testament nations; in almost every case, those nations were utterly destroyed, never to exist again.)

By the time Jesus was born, Judah was under the oppressive thumb of the Roman empire. The Jews rejected Jesus and crucified Him, and two generations after that, in 70 A.D., Jerusalem was destroyed, and the Jews ceased to exist as a nation.

Now I want to look at Romans 1: 18-32, where we are told about God’s wrath against mankind and the reasons for it. Rather than write the entire passage here, let’s focus on verses 24-28: “Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator–who is forever praised. Amen. Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion. Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done.”

John MacArthur, one of my three favorite preachers, has preached on this Romans passage several times. There are three that I noticed in particular. The first one was in 1981, in a two-part sermon called “Abandoned by God.” The second time was in 1993, in a sermon called, “What’s Wrong with America?” In 2006, he preached a sermon called “When God Abandons a Nation.” Notice the theme of abandonment; if you reread the above verses, you will see the phrase “God gave them over,” which means abandoned by God, three times. In other words, God allows people to go their own way. Here’s a quote from his 1993 sermon: “God has just taken away the restraining grace that might preserve our nation and has let our nation run to its own doom.” When I heard this, it struck a chord with me, partly because of what was already happening in the U.S. and partly because of a sermon by another pastor I had heard in the 1980s. He gave the analogy of being in a rowboat that is tethered to a dock by a long rope. Over time, as the boat gets further and further from the dock, the rope becomes more and more frayed, until eventually, if the people in the boat are unaware, the rope breaks and the boat is adrift.

Let me be clear here: there is a distinction between a nation and God’s people within it. God never, ever abandons His people, but He can certainly abandon a nation. You may question MacArthur’s conclusion about the U.S., but it’s impossible to deny the rampant sin in our society, certainly including homosexuality. Not only has same-sex marriage been legal here since 2015, but it has also become more and more dangerous to speak against it. Beyond that, what does God’s judgment on the U.S. look like? How about the widespread riots last summer and the attack on the Capitol last week? I don’t want to get overly political here, but how about the left’s condoning of last summer’s riots contrasted with their rabid response to the attack on the Capitol? How about Cancel Culture in general, which means that those in power dictate what can be said and written, and what cannot? If the left follows through with its threats to add two more states and pack the Supreme Court, welcome to one-party rule, and so much for the First Amendment.

I can’t help but think of the OT Israelites in Egyptian captivity during the ten plagues; we are explicitly told in Exodus Chapters 7-12 that in the case of at least half of the plagues (flies, livestock, hail, darkness, and the firstborn), the Lord brought them only on the Egyptians, but not on the Israelites. Regardless of what happens, the Lord will never abandon His people. He calls us to stand firm, with grace and truth, and He calls us to live in obedience. If you are reading this and are not a Christian, I pray this will be the day you come to Jesus in saving faith.

Keys to a Successful Marriage

As my wife and I approach our 32nd anniversary, I’ve been thinking about what has enabled us to have a successful marriage. By this I mean not just staying married but enjoying each other’s presence. (I have been with couples who have been married a long time but who don’t enjoy being together.) In light of that, a few weeks ago I came across an article by a non-Christian related to this topic. Here is the link: https://getpocket.com/explore/item/every-successful-relationship-is-successful-for-the-same-exact-reasons?utm_source=pocket-newtab. The author, Mark Manson, sent out “the call” the week before his wedding, asking anyone who has been married 10+ years and is still happy in their relationship: What lessons would you pass down to others if you could? (At the time of his writing, he had been married two weeks.)

Manson received almost 1500 responses, many of them “measured in pages, not paragraphs.” He writes he was stunned that “they were incredibly repetitive,” but in a good way. He consolidated the responses into 13 key things. As I read them, I realized that they are all, to one degree or another, as applicable to a Christian marriage (such as my own) as they are to a non-Christian marriage, such as Manson’s. Without further ado, here they are:

  1. Be together for the right reasons. Manson defines this largely by some wrong reasons that people who had had multiple marriages reported. Examples of those wrong reasons include fixing yourself; being together for image; being young, naive, and hopelessly in love; and feeling pressure from family.
  2. Have realistic expectations about relationships and romance. These are defined largely by unconditional love, not romantic love.
  3. The most important factor in a relationship is not communication, but respect. Manson writes that respect goes hand-in-hand with trust, and that respect is especially important during conflict.
  4. Talk openly about everything, especially the stuff that hurts. This builds trust, which leads to greater intimacy.
  5. A healthy relationship means two healthy individuals. Enough said.
  6. Give each other space. The key word here in Manson’s description is “separate.” Manson and his responders write about the importance of separate checking accounts, credit cards, vacations, and even bathrooms and bedrooms. This is an area where I found myself in disagreement with Manson and company; while giving each other some space is important, too much of it can create too much distance.
  7. You and your partner will grow and change in unexpected ways; embrace it. Some of the examples include changing religions; experiencing the death of a family member; and even changing sexual orientation (?!). While I can agree with the principle, I can’t agree with many of the examples.
  8. Get good at fighting. Examples include not insulting your spouse and taking a breather if necessary.
  9. Get good at forgiving. I would add “and apologizing.”
  10. The little things add up to big things. Respondents said that this is especially important once you have kids. Examples given include holding hands and doing household chores.
  11. Sex matters… a lot. Obviously, different people have different levels of desire, but regardless, it matters a lot.
  12. Be practical, and create relationship rules. The common theme of the advice was to be pragmatic. One of the examples given is that if a wife works 50 hours/week outside the home, and the husband works mainly at home, it makes sense for him to handle more of the parenting duties. Almost all of the examples given regarding rules are related to spending money.
  13. Learn to ride the waves. Enough said.

Underlying all of these key things, as Manson writes, is genuine admiration for your spouse. As I wrote at the outset, all of them are applicable to some degree to every marriage, whether Christian or not. As a Christian, I would add at least one key: grow together spiritually. Ways to do this in my own marriage have included attending church together; praying together; serving others together; and discussing the Bible and Christian books together.

As I read Manson’s article, I found myself thinking about this question: If I had to choose one of the 13 keys as the most important in a marriage, which one would it be? I chose #9: get good at forgiving, with the addition of “and apologizing.” Maybe you have seen the old movie Love Story. There’s an infamous line: Love means never having to say you’re sorry. How stupid is that?! I have had to apologize to my wife many times; the best of those have been when she hasn’t even had to confront me but when the Holy Spirit has brought conviction. Forgiveness is at the heart of the Christian message: we have all sinned, and the only solution to the problem is trusting in Jesus Christ, asking Him to forgive our sins.

If you have any additional keys to a successful marriage, as well as thoughts on which key you think is most important, I would be very interested in reading them!

A Christmas Quiz

With Christmas just around the corner, I thought it would be interesting to make a quiz about some commonly-held assumptions related to Jesus’ birth–and then also have some fun related to a secular Christmas song or two. You can find the answers, with explanations, in the second part of this post.

True-False Statements

  1. Jesus was born in a stable.
  2. There were three Wise Men (Magi) who visited Jesus and his parents.
  3. The shepherds and the Wise Men didn’t visit Jesus and his parents at the same time.
  4. At the time the Wise Men visited Jesus, He was living in a house.
  5. Jesus was born in the year A.D. 1.
  6. Jesus was probably born in the winter.
  7. Jesus was born to a woman who had never had sexual relations.
  8. Joseph married Mary before Jesus was born.
  9. Santa Claus traces his origin to a monk who was born in the 3rd century.
  10. The total 2020 cost of the items in the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is greater than the poverty threshold for a family of four in the U.S.

Answers

  1. False. In spite of what you have seen in nativity scenes, the Bible does not say that Jesus was born in a stable or a barn. He was probably born in a cave; in the second century, Justin Martyr said that Jesus had been born in a cave outside Bethlehem.
  2. False. It is commonly assumed that there were three Magi because they brought three gifts: gold, incense, and myrrh. Perhaps you are also familiar with the Christmas song “We Three Kings.” However, the Bible does not tell us how many Magi there were.
  3. True. Luke tells us in Chapter 2:8 that there were shepherds “nearby.” In verse 16 Luke writes that the shepherds “hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger.” Regarding the Magi, on the other hand, Matthew tells us in Chapter 2:16, “When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.” This strongly suggests that by the time the Wise Men, who “saw his star in the east” (verse 2), came to Bethlehem, Jesus was probably at least a year old.
  4. True. Matthew 2:11 tells us, “On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him.”
  5. False. We don’t know exactly when Jesus was born, but B.C. 4 seems to be the most likely year.
  6. False. Since there were shepherds in the fields with their sheep, it’s very unlikely that Jesus’ birth would have happened during the winter. In addition, Luke 2:1-2 tells us that a census was being taken of the entire Roman world; the winter would not have been a good time to make people go “to his own town to register.” (Luke 2:3) It seems most likely Jesus was born in early fall; this is because of the comparative times of the birth of John the Baptist and Jesus.
  7. True. Jesus was born to the virgin Mary. Luke 1:34 tells us that when the angel Gabriel told Mary she would give birth to a son, Mary replied, “‘How will this be,’ Mary asked the angel, ‘since I am a virgin?'” Gabriel replies in the next verse, “‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you.'” Matthew 1:18 confirms, “Before they [Joseph and Mary] came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit.” Also, Matthew 1:25 tells us that Joseph “had no union with her [Mary] until she gave birth to a son.” On a personal note, my father-in-law for more than 90 years was not a Christian; he said he could not believe the miracles in the Bible, and he referred specifically to the miracle of Jesus being born to a virgin. Thankfully, at the age of 91, he accepted Jesus as his Savior.
  8. True. The Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream after Mary became pregnant. Matthew 1:24 says, “When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife.” Also, others have noted that it would have been unlikely for Joseph to take his fiancee with him on a 90-mile journey to register for the census. There is not unanimity on this matter because of the customary year-long betrothal at that time in Jewish society, but it seems very likely that Joseph and Mary were married and living (and traveling!) together before Jesus was born.
  9. True. One of the many names of Santa Claus is St. Nicholas, a monk who was born in 280 A.D. in what is now Turkey.
  10. False. The total cost now for the items in “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is a mere $16,168.14, compared with the poverty threshold for a U.S. family of four, which is $26,200. Last year, the cost was a whopping $38,993. What’s the reason for the huge drop in cost? You guessed it: COVID-19, which renders the last four items (nine ladies dancing, ten lords a-leaping, eleven pipers piping, and twelve drummers drumming) NA. The most expensive item, by far, is the seven swans a-swimming, which would set you back $13,125! For some humorous commentary on this, click here: https://www.radio.com/y98/news/heres-what-it-will-cost-to-buy-the-12-days-of-christmas

Have a very merry Christmas!!

Are We All Children of God?

Last summer, I heard a pastor (not mine) say that everyone is a child of God. This same pastor believes that everyone who does not trust in Jesus as their Savior and Lord will spend eternity in hell; in other words, he believes that the Lord will send most of His “children” to hell.

As always, we need to examine what we hear and read through the lens of Scripture. The first thing I thought of when I heard what this pastor said was the passage where Jesus said that the Jews of His day who did not believe in Him were children of Satan. Let’s take a closer look. In John 8:41, the Jews said, “‘The only Father we have is God himself.'” (If you read earlier in the same chapter, you will see that they put their confidence in the fact that they were physical descendants of Abraham.) Three verses later, Jesus says, ‘”You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desire. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.'” These words of Jesus are very plain.

Let’s also look at a couple of verses that define who a child of God is. John 1:12 says, “Yet to all who received him, to those who believe in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” Galatians 3:26-27 says, “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” These verses make it very clear that there is a condition for being a child of God: those who put their faith in Christ, who receive Him and believe in Him, are His children.

Let’s contrast the words of the pastor who believes that everyone is a child of God, but that unbelievers will spend eternity in hell, with the words of some other people I know, who frankly seem to have a better understanding of this matter. My wife and I knew one of these people many years ago; she was a young seeker, meaning she was a genuine seeker of Biblical truth but not a Christian. One night she came over, very distraught because a good friend of hers had died; this friend was not a Christian, so our seeker’s question was whether her friend was now in hell. We told her that her friend might have put her faith in Jesus before she died, but that if she hadn’t, then sadly, yes, her friend was now in hell. This helped some, but she said that she couldn’t stand the idea of her friend being alone in that terrible place and that she wanted to join her there. While acknowledging her grief and her other feelings, we said that we wanted her to join us in heaven and urged her to put her faith in Jesus. She has since moved away, and we haven’t heard from her for some years, but we still pray that we will see her in heaven.

Another friend of ours recently came to faith in Jesus, and like our beloved seeker friend, she spoke about a relative who had died without knowing the Lord. She was initially distraught, but later, with remarkable insight, she realized that this relative would not want her to join her in hell. Implicit in her testimony was the story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31; in verses 27 and 28, the rich man, now in hell, begs Abraham to send Lazarus (both are in heaven) to his five living brothers: “‘Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.'” I’m not saying that every person in hell feels this way, but this very young believer had a maturity that many other “older” believers don’t seem to have.

A third person that we know has been a Christian for a long time. An acquaintance of hers had recently died, and she believed this acquaintance was now in hell because she had failed to tell her about Jesus. Well, if her acquaintance is one of God’s chosen ones, then she is in heaven, not hell, but it was good for our friend to understand that she should have shared the Gospel with her.

What do these three friends of ours have in common, and how does it relate to the belief of the pastor I mentioned at the outset? I believe it’s clear that all three of them implicitly understand that not everyone is a child of God and that hell is a horrible place of eternal torment; beyond the normal feeling of grief, that is at the heart of why they were so distraught about their friend or relative being in hell. Contrast that with the belief of the pastor who thinks that everyone is a child of God, and that God somehow loves them even in hell. He challenged his listeners to think about this situation: say you have a child who has not only strayed but who has said hateful things to you and that he never wants to see your face again; would you continue loving this child even if he never returned to you and reconciled with you? He said that God would, and does.

First of all, I don’t believe that the pastor’s “God would” answer is supported by Scripture. Beyond that, a fundamental problem is his almost cavalier, platitudinal attitude, in contrast to our three friends’ sobering understanding of the reality of hell; all three have an implicit understanding that hell, among other things, is the eternal, complete absence of God.

Why is this important? I have written previously about the dangerous teaching of Rob Bell, a universalist who believes that everyone will ultimately make it to heaven. (See especially https://keithpetersenblog.com/2020/06/11/does-god-love-everyone-part-2/.) Tony Campolo, a pastor and retired professor whose books I used to read, has also moved in the direction of believing that people have a “second chance” after death; this is bad enough, but I’m concerned that he will ultimately become a universalist, which again is dangerous not only for him but for those who read and listen to him. I have the same concern for the “God would” pastor.

As children of God, let’s test everything we hear by Scripture. If you are reading this and are not yet a true child of God, my prayer is that you will come to saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.