Truth is Truth

"You, O LORD, will not withhold Your compassion from me; Your lovingkindness and Your truth will continually preserve me." - Psalm 40:11 This is a sometimes monthly column concerning the truth of Christ Jesus and the issues that face our world as published in various newspapers and journals by Pastor Dave Seaford. You can return to the home page of the church by going to:

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Location: Redway, California, United States

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Human Happiness and the Humble Heart

We error incredibly as Christians when we assume happiness and joy are synonymous. No doubt you have heard sermons on the subject and perhaps you can even make some verbal distinctions between the two. But if I were to ask you for a clear pathway to joy as opposed to happiness could you give a concise biblical teaching on the subject? Further could you objectively put your own life to the self tests prescribed by the apostle John and be pleased with the results?

Have you ever considered the rollercoaster ride of highs and lows found in every person’s life? The deviant theology of the Word of Faith movement has taken advantage of these emotional fluctuations and created a powerful following, who long for that “Jesus high” that does not fail. Yet, inevitably the formulas of words prescribed disappoint. In those moments of despair the chant from these Word of Faith teachers has become predictable: “the Faith did not fail you, only your personal faith failed.”

The people that have been sold the Word of Faith bill of goods are often disillusioned, more often hurt and more often than not look for relief in all the wrong places. As a result depression is easy and the seeds of bitterness, anger and defeat are commonly the unsought fruit.

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelly, the British novelist said:

“No man chooses evil because it is evil. He only mistakes it for happiness, which is the good he seeks.”

I believe for the most part she is correct. Other than those suffering with certain kinds of mental disorders and those that have allowed themselves to be subject to demonic works, the desire of most people is not to pursue evil for evil’s sake. While I do not believe in the natural goodness of the human heart (“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked…” Jer. 17:9), neither do I believe that most people have evil as their stated goal and purpose in life. Evil is much more deceptive than that. People often find themselves doing evil things as a result of 1) pursuing a good end at any cost, or 2) pursuing happiness and finding evil the shortest distance between where they are and the feelings they long for. In this effort they either conveniently ignore the evil or justify it in their minds as a “necessary evil”.

One can even set out in the work of Christian ministry teaching the truths of God’s word with accuracy but find his own actions and personal words defy the very teachings he professes. 1st John calls this person a “liar”. This is perhaps the saddest and most hurtful of all evil. False teachers can eventually be exposed and left to defend themselves in the emptiness of perverse relativism. But, the one who teaches with accuracy and then allows his life to defy his own teachings, finds only cleaver sophistry his ally in defending his divergence. His words eventually ware then, and in their wake we find hurt and destruction. Sadly those hurt often hurt others… and the beat goes on, all in the name of Jesus.

Believers seeking the easiest way to defeat evil were likely the plague that, somewhere between Paul’s commendation of them, and John’s condemnation of them in Revelation 2, caused the Church at Ephesus to fall far short of God’s approval. They stood up against false teacher and did so with persistence and patience. In pursuit of good works, like the Ephesians, we can find it easy to accept the adage that the ends justify the means. We often forget that the results are the Holy Spirit’s work, and that the means we chose are the reflection of our true submission to God’s Word and His Holy Spirit in our lives. Often our efforts to defeat evil are really nothing more than a pursuit of happiness and the means we choose become secondary, if considered at all. In the end, like the church at Ephesus, if we are not attentive we will find that in our good work we have lost our first love.

Where the humble heart finds joy, the hardened heart mistakes evil for the good he seeks. As we work our way through 1st John, we will find those that walk in this darkness (whether false teachers or teachers of truth whose lives defy their words), consistently end in places of evil. Finding themselves there unexpectedly, they will either repent (turn and go the other way) or in a knee jerk reaction, dig in for the fight. Those walking in the light may be hurt by their own actions and embarrassed but are repentant. Those walking in darkness, cover their sins in the cloak of night and find it easier and easier to justify who they are and what they are doing… usually in the name of Jesus.

1st John teaches us to test our own lives against true north. It provides us an acid test of the genuine Christian Faith. It may not be easy to subject ourselves to this standard, but it will result in joy that is lasting where all pursuits to find human happiness fail.

Can I Really Forgive?

Perhaps as much as any sermon series I have ever preached, this subject of Forgiveness has generated questions. The title of this article is the question that seems to be hiding beneath most of the others. The question is actually a good one. We have been conditioned to believe that forgiving and forgetting go hand-in-hand and if we continue to remember anything concerning the offense we have somehow failed at the attempt to forgive. Here, in a nutshell, is the key for us to think about: it is not that we won’t remember; it is rather that we won’t remember it againstthem. Of course you will remember the event. God does not forget our sins in that sense either. He simply does not remember them against us.

These kinds of basic misunderstandings concerning biblical forgiveness reinforce the reality that we have a ton of work to do just to get to a place we are ready (emotionally, mentally, spiritually and psychologically) to begin the process of forgiveness with any real anticipation of living in a forgiving spirit. This will not be a short or painless journey, should you choose to take the challenge.

You will note that forgiveness was just referred to as a “process.” For the most part, the people I have spoken with about this subject over the years have viewed forgiveness as an event in time… something we do and then move on. They see it as a time when they said to someone (or thought to themselves): “I forgive you.” The first question to address here should be; is this confession (speaking good words) sufficient to getting the job done? And how do I know when the job is really accomplished?

Some have suggested by their questions recently, that in positing this “first question,” I have actually gotten ahead of myself. They ask questions like: “Is it not true that only God can forgive sins?” and “What about the imprecatory Psalms (those Psalms where King David and others are praying for the destruction of their enemies)… is this type of prayer no longer appropriate on this side of the cross?” Or “Can I pleasestill pray these kinds of prayers without guilt?” What about correcting (or even punishing) our children, if we forgive them, does this not presume they will avoid punishment? So, perhaps as we lay the foundations for this study we will attack these kinds of subjects earlier than I had planned. We won’t get to all the answers in this article as space will not allow for even all the questions heard so far, but we will attempt to plant a few of the seeds of answers in the rich soil of the scriptures. As we attempt to surround these difficult issues with practical suggestions (if not exacting answers), it is my prayer that you will have the courage to make this personal. Not just personal as you ruminate on all those that have offended or sinned against you, but even more personal than that. So personal that you determine to both seek forgiveness and seek in your heart and mind to forgive others their most egregious sins against you.

Be reminded that there are only two places to live in this journey, they are: bitternessor forgiveness. One of the most profound realities I have faced on this journey is how trivial some of the offenses are that have resulted in the most exaggerated forms of bitterness. But whether these offenses are trivial in my eyes or not is irrelevant. The nature of unforgiveness and the bitterness (dirt) required to grow unforgiveness is the first reality that must be faced in the process itself. To partially answer one of the questions above: God commands us to forgive and we cannot do this living in bitterness. Some people think they can compartmentalize their bitterness and only experience it when they choose to think about a particular person or event; and all the rest of the time live in peace and joy with God and their fellow man. God’s word seems to strongly indicate that this deception only keeps us burdened, blind & emboldened in our bitterness. Some of us have even come to think of that bitterness as a “Right” to be clung to. These poor souls actually enjoy the process of belittling, berating, and brutalizing the offender (in their minds and hearts, if not by their words and deeds). One of the questions asked recently was: “If it is not right to be bitter, why do I find it so therapeutic?” Isn’t this the way of the world and the way the enemy works? More often than not the excuse that it feels good only leads to more abusive thoughts and actions. To rewrite a popular song from the past, we often get to the place practically (if not theologically) that reasons: “If destroying you is wrong, I don’t want to be right.” When we arrive at this demonic “X” on this worldly treasure map, we love using anything (in or out of context) that justifies our actions and if we cannot find those, it really does not matter. Our justification then becomes; “but what they did is just not right” or “it is not fair.” From there it is only a short trip to pronouncing judgment based on nothing more than opinions or a twisted interpretation of words or events. Some have even come to see this particularly heinous form of bitterness as their “ministry.” When bitterness has grown to this point it, is easy for the offended to judge, by presumption, the motives of the offender. After all, if we can just judge the motive of the offender evil enough, nothing we can do to them seems too bad. It should be pointed out that this journey into bitterness is easy. It is all downhill. It is also interesting that bitterness creates quite an adrenaline rush, endorphins are set off and in a very physical way a chemical high is created that most of us can easily come to embrace and enjoy. Some sociological professionals recently have even suggested that it is addictive to both individuals and cultural environments. Thus, it can be rightly said that bitterness within the framework of fallenness is not only addictive, but also contagious.

It needs to be stated here that psychologically, biblically and scientifically, it has been determined that bitterness is notcaused by the offense or the offender. Before you go any further in this article please read that very bold statement again. It is a shocking, and, for some, a disturbing truth. So, if neither the offender nor the offense causes bitterness, what does? Gary DeLashmutt says that bitterness is “prolonged retributive anger toward another person because of an offense committed.” While that seems to contradict what was just stated consider this truth: There is only one part of any relationship that you currently have that you can control. Guess what part that is. Of course it is your actions or (in this case) your reactions. It is not the offense or the offender that has “caused” your bitterness; it is your reaction to the offense or offender.

“But I just can’t help it, that guy just ticks me off.” Well if that is the case we, as Christians, serve a disturbingly abusive God, because He commandsthat we forgive exactly that person. Sometimes it is precisely God’s commands that are set-aside in His Name, in order to more comfortably do Hisministry. Setting this command aside is destructive to His work: so forgiveness becomes the precursor to any genuine work that is His.

We should set high standards in dealing with God or talking about God or doing ministry, but our personal lofty and admirable objectives, imposed on others, can result in us living as angry participants in never ending religious wars that bring no glory to God. The destructive nature of these major wars hosted on the battlefields of minor issues, kills more than it ever heals. When will we heed the call of Augustine? “In the essentials, unity; in the non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, love.”

Recently it was my privilege to be one of the 150 or so original signers of the Manhattan Declaration. Most would be shocked at the amount of email I received from around the world from “Christians” calling me a heretic, or worse! While some of those emails were civil and reasoned, a healthy number were breathing strong hints of retaliation. I will not repeat some of the language used in that correspondence but suffice it to say that it would not take anyone who was reading them long to understand the unquestionable bitterness that was being manifested simply because Roman Catholics and Evangelicals came together around common causes. These people have made their anger at the Roman Church not only an “essential” but thepredominate focus of their work.

Some bitterness, like that just described, is easy to see. Some, however (probably the most dangerous kind), are those bitters steeped in the cup of “what just seems right,”or that are hidden behind holy causes, or are bred in the high standards of men for excellent purposes. How do we recognize this kind in others and ourselves and what do we do about it if we begin to glimpse it?

Here are a few symptoms of bitterness. Remember as you look at this relatively short list, that all of us are susceptible to bitterness and that bitterness is a clear indicator of unforgiveness. Symptoms seem to fall into two basic categories:

.Justifying your retributive anger: Ruminating and/or exaggerating the offense; thinking about the negative effects of the offense; finding others to join you in what has been made a sport.

.Expressing retributive anger: Finding pleasure in any misfortune of the offenders (most particularly, any misfortune to which the embittered one has contributed). This pleasure is only slightly behind that of withdrawing from any relationships with the offender while helpingothers to do the same. Rehearsing to one’s self what it would be like to say or do this or that to the offender. The person rooted in bitterness additionally finds themselves in disproportionate anger over unrelated issues: plotting and/or even taking revenge (either overtly or covertly), gossiping and/or slandering the offender.

Angerand Bitternessare empowering emotions. They feel good short-term, can become self-perpetuating, but don’t ware well long term. They will exact their revenge on the one that embraces them and in the end become inevitably draining to one’s emotional reserves, thus setting up an emotional free fall. The adrenaline and endorphins do their job in the chosen hatred of the moment, but like alcohol or drug addiction there is a very dark reality on the other side of the high. Somehow after a time, a bitterness fix is needed just to feel the day is normal. Long-term bitterness poisons one’s personality with negativity (self-pity; cynicism; tone of voice; facial expressions) that has the effect of repulsing people – which of course gives the embittered person that many more people to be bitter toward. Psychologists now tell us that often the end resultof a prolonged spiral downward, deeper and deeper into this kind of bitter state is either: a particular type of psychosis or paranoia.

Spiritually, the consequences are most devastating. Practicing this kind of disobedience moves us away from any healthy relationship with God. While it is true that nothing (including bitterness) can take the Christian out of God’s ultimate care. Eph 4:30 warns us to “. . . grieve not the holy Spirit of God, whereby ye are sealed unto the day of redemption.” Here are the instructions to avoid this divisive nature becoming part of yours: v. 31 & 32 “Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamor, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice: And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you.”

In the months ahead, in the series on Forgiveness, we will answer many of the questions posed at the first of this article. Some of us will choose to do the right and the difficult thing rather than the humanly natural thing. Consequently, the road will be a bit more difficult as we learn to respond in the nature and by the grace of our heavenly Father. I pray you will join me in the journey.