Monday, April 30, 2007

Does God Punish Us for What We Believe?

In recent months I have become increasingly aware of a problem many Christians are creating which is keeping them from reaching the irreligious who otherwise might be very open to the gospel message. Christians are giving unbelievers wrong ideas about God, salvation, and judgment, the primary messages of Christianity, by responding to the question, “why do I need Jesus?” with the answer, “If you don’t believe in Jesus you will go to hell.”

What’s the problem with this statement? Isn’t it true? Well…Yes and no.

When Christians hear the phrase, “If you don’t believe in Jesus you will go to hell,” there are a lot of other things that come packaged with it, salvation by grace, mercy, justice, etc. When a non-Christian hears that phrase they hear that God is capricious, caring more about what you believe than what you do. This is a major stumbling block for non-Christians considering Christianity, and it’s a completely unnecessary one if only Christians would be more careful in how they communicate the Gospel. The gospel is offensive enough without Christ’s followers adding to the offense with badly chosen words.

So how should we communicate the truth of “If you don’t believe in Jesus you go hell,” in a more effective, more precise manner?

We need to understand the Gospel better. While it’s true that those who don’t believe in Jesus will go to hell, their lack of belief is not the reason they go there. People go to hell because of their moral transgressions against God. While it is true that those who die without Christ will face judgment and hell, it is not one’s beliefs that earn hell, but one’s actions. God does not judge based on belief, He judges and condemns those standing before Him based on their rebellion and moral criminality. It is only because of the grace of God offered through Christ, that I and other Christians can receive the mercy of God, which we have not earned and don’t deserve.

We Christians have failed in communicating the need for Jesus to the unbelieving world. We have gotten so caught up in talking about Christianity with other Christians that many of us have forgotten that non-Christians don’t understand our buzzwords; and speaking “christianese” confuses them at best and gives them the wrong impressions about what God really does and offers at worst.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Head Knowledge Versus Heart Knowledge

Growing up in the Church, I have often heard people say, “The problem is you only have head knowledge, but you don’t have heart knowledge.” The thinking is this: You can have all the “head knowledge” you want, but if you don’t engage the heart (an emotional response) with that knowledge, you will be a spiritually dead (or at least spiritually weak) Christian; and will be more likely to fall-away or backslide should you run up against an intellectual roadblock.

The fact that I have never once heard this idea reversed (i.e. “The problem is, all you have is heart knowledge; you need to get a little head knowledge.”) exemplifies the preference among much of evangelical Christianity for emotion over thought when it comes to the Christian walk.

Favoring emotion over knowledge is a tremendous problem facing the Church today. Like many troubling sayings in the Church, the problem arises not from the saying itself but because the saying has been repeated so often for so long and without any explanation or supporting scripture that it has taken on a whole new meaning in the minds of many people. This misunderstanding has caused Christians, in some cases, to completely discount and eliminate the rational aspect of the Christian life in favor of an almost exclusively emotional response.

This really hit home for me while I was perusing a discussion thread titled, “Discerning God’s Voice,” on one of the Christian Internet forums that I visit from time to time. The thread posed the question how one knows the “will of God,” with a specific example of a decision being faced by the thread originator. Nearly all of the responses leaned heavily toward an emotional answer to the question; here are several examples:

“..if you don't know shelf it, set it aside until you can discern it more in your heart and with God.”

“God’s will always leaves us with a sense of peace at the end.” (sense of peace = emotional tranquility. Apparently, this sense of peace is how we know we are within God’s will, according to many of the posters.)

“…when you heard those words in your head, did the feeling after leave you at peace or with more confusion and questions?” (The originator of the post talked about “hearing a voice in his head” and was wondering how to tell whether the voice was from God.)

“Yes, if you are feeling peace in everything, that is the Holy Spirit.”

The most egregious example was this one:

“God leads us by peace! God doesn’t scare us! God speaks in a still small voice, in our bowels = in our belly. Never listen to your head; the mind is at enmity against God. Listen to your belly, close your eyes and listen, focus on where the voice comes from, either head or gut.” Go with the gut!!!” (I could do another long post responding to all the problematic statements here. I disagree emphatically with every sentence this poster wrote.)

(Emphasis added in each example)

The problem as I see it is this: While it may be that having only “head knowledge” can lead to a spiritually dead Christian, it is almost inevitably true that having only “heart knowledge” leads to immature Christians; which, in the present evangelical landscape, is a far larger problem than spiritually dead Christians, in my opinion. Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot of spiritual deadness out there as well, but almost by definition all the spiritually dead are also immature, and when you add them to all the “spiritually alive” (or at least emotional) Christians who are fundamentally immature as well, you get a problem which affects a huge percentage of Christianity (and the fact is, those who are spiritually mature are unlikely to be spiritually dead).

I am drawing a parallel between “head knowledge” and maturity because without information about God and his law/will, one will never move beyond a purely emotional response to Him and grow out of immaturity. Such “thoughtful maturity” is often called “wisdom” by the Biblical authors. Wisdom doesn’t come through emotional “heart knowledge,” it requires information which only comes through the study of and meditation on the Word of God. In other words, it requires “head knowledge.”

While there is encouragement for the believer to seek after and/or apply human wisdom in countless passages in both the Old and New Testaments, I can’t think of a single example of a Biblical exhortation for the believer to seek an emotional experience. If you know of any, please provide me with the citation (obviously, we are told to love God, but as any married couple can tell you, and in the immortal words of DC Talk: “Love is a verb.” Love can be associated with an emotion, but true love persists even when the emotions fade away, as they do in every relationship from time to time). Let me highlight just a few examples of wisdom from the Bible:

Proverbs 4:5-13
Acquire wisdom! Acquire understanding!
Do not forget nor turn away from the words of my mouth.
"Do not forsake her, and she will guard you;
Love her, and she will watch over you.
"The beginning of wisdom is: Acquire wisdom;
And with all your acquiring, get understanding.
"Prize her, and she will exalt you;
She will honor you if you embrace her.
"She will place on your head a garland of grace;
She will present you with a crown of beauty."
Hear, my son, and accept my sayings
And the years of your life will be many.
I have directed you in the way of wisdom;
I have led you in upright paths.
When you walk, your steps will not be impeded;
And if you run, you will not stumble.
Take hold of instruction; do not let go
Guard her, for she is your life.

Not only does this passage encourage the acquisition of wisdom, at the very end it points out that instruction (or learning) is absolutely essential to gaining and retaining wisdom, and wisdom is absolutely essential to life.

Ephesians 5:15-16
Therefore be careful how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise, making the most of your time, because the days are evil.

Ecclesiastes 10:10
Wisdom has the advantage of giving success.

Proverbs 24:6
For by wise guidance you will wage war, and in abundance of counselors there is victory.

Matthew 10:16
Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves.

1 Thessalonians 3:1-2
Therefore when we could endure it no longer, we thought it best to be left behind at Athens alone, and we sent Timothy, our brother and God's fellow worker in the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you as to your faith…

(This passage is a demonstration of the application of wisdom)

Acts 15:1-12, in which the early Church elders gathered to discuss the issue of circumcision for gentile believers, clearly highlights the need for wisdom over an emotional response. We are told that the Church elders discussed and debated the issue, not that they waited for a feeling of peace about the subject or a word spoken to them from God. Although they doubtlessly prayed for wisdom throughout their debate, in the end they made their decision based upon the words of Jesus and the prophets, and the work they clearly saw God doing amongst the gentile believers. This decision had everything to do with the knowledge they had from their study of the Scriptures and the teachings of Jesus. Head knowledge.

There are many, many more examples that could be cited (especially from the Book of Acts), but this article is already plenty long.

My point is this: Head knowledge is essential for wisdom and maturity in Christ, both of which believers are instructed to pursue. Heart knowledge bolsters faith and helps us in enthusiastically serving God. However, when heart knowledge unsupported by head knowledge fails (as all emotions do from time to time) the believer has nothing to support him and is lost in confusion and darkness. Head knowledge supports the believer through the emotional deserts that all Christians go through.

Study your Bible; study the thoughts of great thinkers and philosophers in the Faith. Acquaint yourself with the workings of the world. Don’t be na├»ve. Take the time to acquire some head knowledge; it will serve you well and maintain your faith through hard times, help you make good decisions, and it will guard your heart.