Is Christmas Necessary?

Christians have had to respond to the customs of the surrounding culture since the beginning of the church. In the end, though, Jerry Solomon wrote that Christmas is necessary only in terms of its historical and theological content.

This article is also available in Spanish.

What do you think of when you hear the word “Christmas”? Frantic shopping? Family traditions? A commemoration of the birth of Jesus? Or a combination of all these responses and more? If you’ve been living in the United States long, you probably find it difficult to focus on just one without the others. And if you’re a Christian you probably want to focus on the birth of Jesus, but you spend a great deal of your December on shopping and traditions. Then you may finish “The Season,” as it has come to be known, feeling guilty because you didn’t focus on Jesus as the “Reason for the Season.” You may even want to ask if the season is really necessary, because you’re exhausted, broke, and relieved when it’s over for another year.

Download the Podcast So we want to ask, “Is Christmas necessary?”

In order to address this question we will focus first on a history of the celebration and its accompanying customs. Then we will concentrate on whether economics, traditions, or theology make it necessary.

A Brief History of Christmas

The very early church has not left us with any indication that Christmas was a part of their yearly calendar. Certainly the New Testament doesn’t include such an emphasis. Philip Schaff, a church historian, offers three reasons for this.

In the first place, no corresponding festival was presented by the Old Testament, as in the case of Easter and Pentecost. In the second place, the day and month of the birth of Christ are nowhere stated in the gospel history, and cannot be certainly determined. Again: the church lingered first of all about the death and resurrection of Christ, the completed fact of redemption, and made this the center of the weekly worship and the church year. Finally: the earlier feast of Epiphany…afforded a substitute. The artistic religious impulse, however, which produced the whole church year, must sooner or later have called into existence a festival which forms the groundwork of all other annual festivals in honor of Christ.{1}

So the Christmas celebration appeared comparatively late in church history. And it appeared as the result of a change in the ways Christians dealt with their surrounding culture. In order to see the progression of this change, it will be helpful if we consider early pagan festivals that were eventually transformed by the church.

Some scholars assert that the earliest precursor of the Christmas celebration can be found within a Persian religion that influenced Roman life.

One of the great festivals of ancient Rome was related to the winter solstice, celebrated on December 25 as the Natal Day of the Unconquerable Sun and tied to the Persian religion of Mithraism, one of Christianity’s early rivals. The church took over this day to turn the attention of Christians from the old heathen festival to the celebration of the “sun of righteousness.”{2}

It is especially interesting to note that the mythological god Mithra, for whom Mithraism was named, “is described as being born from a rock, the birth being witnessed by shepherds on a day (December 25) that was later claimed by Christians as the nativity of Christ.”{3}

Actually “the Christmas festival was probably the Christian transformation or regeneration of a series of kindred heathen festivals…which were kept in Rome in the month of December, in commemoration of the golden age of universal freedom and equality, and in honor of the unconquered sun, and which were great holidays, especially for slaves and children.”{4} Our contemporary struggle with how to react to Halloween may be similar to the struggle the early church had with Christmas. In particular, they had to decide if they should and would celebrate the birth of Christ. Then the question was, when would this celebration take place? Their answers are instructive for us today.

Schaff describes this regeneration of heathen festivals in light of the cultural changes that began to affect the church:

Had the Christmas festival arisen in the period of the persecution, its derivation from these pagan festivals would be refuted by the then reigning abhorrence of everything heathen; but in the Nicene age this rigidness of opposition between the church and the world was in a great measure softened by the general conversion of the heathen. Besides, there lurked in those pagan festivals themselves, in spite of all their sensual abuses, a deep meaning and an adaptation to a real want; they might be called unconscious prophecies of the Christmas feast.{5}

Frank Gaebelein informs us that before Christmas was recognized in the West another festival was prominent among Christians in the East.

The earliest reference to December 25 as the date for the Nativity occurs in the Philocalian calendar, which refers to its Roman observance in A.D. 336. But recognition of December 25 [in the West] had been preceded by that of another date–January 6 [in the East], when Epiphany was celebrated first in relation to the baptism of Jesus in the river Jordan and later in relation to the coming of the wise men, or Magi, to worship the infant Jesus.{6}

When the emperor Constantine converted to Christianity he sanctioned the “Christianizing” of various pagan emphases. So he was probably influential “in the institution of a Christian feast of the birthday of the Sun of Righteousness’ (Malachi 4:2) as a rival to the popular pagan festival of the Unconquered Sun (Sol Invictus) at the winter solstice.”{7} But it is helpful to know that his understanding of Christian doctrine was such that he “was not aware of any mutual exclusiveness between Christianity and his faith in the Unconquered Sun.”{8}

So from the era of Constantine (306-337) onward, Christmas (from the Old English Cristes Maesse, “Christ’s Mass”) was gradually included in Western culture. By the time of the Reformation most leaders, including Martin Luther, “were for the abolition of all feast days, except Sunday; but the…long habits of the people were against such a radical reform.”{9} “During Cromwell’s time in seventeenth-century England [Christmas] was banned by Parliament, and in old New England the celebration of Christmas was officially forbidden.”{10} Now, of course, almost a quarter of each year is devoted to the celebration of Christmas in American culture. And as we will see, a variety of customs emphasize many facets of the season.

Should this history make us uneasy? Should we consider disbanding the Christmas season? Obviously some have answered, “Yes!” to these questions in the past and present. But perhaps the wiser response is to give heed to the long traditions of the church and decide if those traditions have a legitimate end. Then we are challenged to decide if we are to isolate ourselves from our culture, become like our culture, or transform our culture. At the present time it appears that we should reevaluate what it may mean to transform the Christmas season for the glory of God.

Customs

The Christmas season includes many customs we take for granted. Where, when, and how did these customs come to have a place in the Christmas celebration? Their origination probably will surprise you.

Merriment and Gifts

“The merriment and giving of gifts, especially to children, may reflect the Roman Saturnalia.”{11} During this festival the Romans honored “the god of agriculture by engaging in much eating, drinking, visiting, masked reveling and notorious celebrations on the streets. Courts closed, and no one was convicted of a crime. Gambling was legal. Slaves dressed as their masters and were served by them. A mock king was chosen. Gifts were exchanged, at first simple wax candles or clay dolls.”{12}

Greenery and Lights

“As for the use of greenery and lights, this goes back to the celebration of the Kalends of January in ancient Rome.”{13} Kalends was a celebration of the Roman new year. People gave each other gifts of green boughs, “honeyed things,” lamps for light and warmth, and silver and gold objects. “Christians used candles symbolizing Christ as the Light of the World, seemingly a combination of Roman and Hebrew customs.”{14} Druids set lighted candles on tree branches. People in the Middle Ages put lighted candles in their windows on Christmas Eve to guide the Christ child on His way. No stranger was turned away, because it could have been Christ in disguise.

Christmas Trees

“Romans trimmed trees with trinkets and toys during the Saturnalia, and put candles on them to indicate the sun’s return to earth.”{15} “Druids honored Odin by tying golden apples and other offerings to tree branches.”{16} In the eighth century, St. Boniface purportedly dedicated the fir tree to the Holy Child as a counter to the sacred oak of Odin. However, Martin Luther gets credit for the tree we are more familiar with.”{17} The Germans placed fruit, gilded nuts, gingerbread, paper roses, and glass balls on their trees. The Poles placed stars and angels. The Czechs made ornaments of painted egg shells.

Manger Scene

During the Middle Ages the manger scene was used to tell the story of Christ’s birth. St. Francis of Assisi set up a nativity outside a cave with live animals and people. In France children gather moss, stones, and greens for a nativity scene which is called a creche.

Christmas Carols

“The first Christmas hymns were written in the fifth century. Originally composed in Latin, they contained primarily theological topics. Carols (noels), songs with more human personal subjects, appeared in the 1200s. During the Middle Ages people incorporated drama and plays into the celebration of Christmas. Carols became an integral part of these reenactments. After the plays, carolers strolled down the street singing thus the birth of street caroling.”{18}

The Yule Log

The word yule refers to the feast of the nativity. Yule log refers to a large log formerly put on the hearth on Christmas eve as the foundation of the fire. Sometimes the Druids burned a Yule log to symbolically represent the removal of evil spirits and dissention in the family at Christmas.

Mistletoe

For the Norsemen mistletoe was sacred to Frigga, goddess of love and mother of the sun god. Balder, her son, was killed by an arrow tip dipped in mistletoe. Frigga shed tears which became the mistletoe berries. Frigga would kiss everyone who passed beneath the tree. The Druids’ high priest used a golden sickle to cut sacred mistletoe.

Holly

The holly plant was sacred to the Roman god Saturn. Romans gave one another holly wreaths and decked images of Saturn with it. Christians decked their homes with it. Druids believed that holly remained green so the world would be beautiful when the sacred grove lost its leaves.

Poinsettia

The poinsettia was brought to this country over one hundred years ago by Dr. Joel Poinsett, the first U.S. minister to Mexico.

Christmas Cards

The first painted Christmas card was designed by John C. Horseley in 1846. The giving of cards became a tradition in Victorian England due to the queen and Charles Dickens’ story “A Christmas Carol.”

Santa Claus

“A popular medieval feast was that of St. Nicholas of Myra (c. 340) on December 6, when the saint was believed to visit children with admonitions and gifts, in preparation for the gift of the Christ child at Christmas. Through the Dutch, the tradition of St. Nicholas (Sinter Klass, hence ‘Santa Claus’) was brought to America in their colony of New Amsterdam, now New York.”{19} “Over the years the American Santa developed many of the secular characteristics of the British Santa, ‘Father Christmas,’ including entering a house through the chimney and stuffing stockings hung near the chimney. This idea came from an old Norse (Scandinavian) legend. But the American Santa became better defined in the 1800s. Clement Moore in 1822 first described Santa in a fur- trimmed suit leading a sleigh pulled by reindeer in his poem, Twas the Night Before Christmas.’”{20}

Now that we have scanned the history and customs of Christmas, can we conclude that any of it is necessary in our time? We will consider economics, traditions, and history/theology as we attempt to answer this question.

Is Christmas Necessary Economically?

First, is Christmas necessary economically? C.S. Lewis, in his brusque, reasonable manner, gives us reasons to consider the question of the economic necessity of Christmas. He wrote:

Three things go by the name of Christmas. One is a religious festival. This is important and obligatory for Christians; but as it can be of no interest to anyone else, I shall naturally say no more about it here. The second (it has complex historical connections with the first, but we needn’t go into them) is a popular holiday, an occasion for merry-making and hospitality. But the third thing called Christmas is unfortunately everyone’s business…I mean of course the commercial racket.

Lewis then goes on to make the following statements about the “commercial racket”:

1. It gives on the whole much more pain than pleasure.
2. Most of it is involuntary.
3. Things are given as presents which no mortal ever bought for himself.
4. The nuisance.{21}

Such comments probably “ring true” for many of us. But is it realistic to attempt to eradicate what has become a major element of the economic system in this country? Helen Dunn Frame offers insights into this question:

As to economics, we might not be “less in debt” without Christmas purchases, because…over one quarter of the year’s retail business is transacted [during the Christmas season] in everything from department stores to grocery stores. Without this holiday volume, year-round prices could be higher, and fewer jobs might be available.{22}

Such reflection leaves us with a challenge. If we want to de-emphasize the commercial side of Christmas, how do we do it without upsetting the economy? Perhaps the economic gain that comes from the Christmas season can be supplanted by some other holiday or emphasis. But what would it be? Perhaps it would be overtly pagan, which would not leave us content. There seems to be no immediate answer to the dilemma the Christian faces while living in this country. I’m reminded of the slow eradication of slavery from the early church. If slavery had been eliminated immediately, it would have created chaos in the social and economic fabric. Thus there was a patient change as the church influenced the culture around it. Maybe that process can serve as a model for us.

Is Christmas Necessary Traditionally?

Second, is Christmas necessary traditionally? Most of us live with traditions. There are national traditions, family traditions, religious traditions, sports traditions, military traditions, etc., that affect our lives. Some are good; others are not-so-good. Some are stifling; others provide stability and continuity. It seems that traditions are very much a part of what it means to be human.

The Christmas season is full of traditions. When we begin to focus on Christmas at the end of each year it usually means that we begin to give attention to the reestablishment of things passed from the previous generation to ours. A tree is put in the same place; the same decorations, most of which have a story of their own, are extracted from storage; cards are written; gifts are purchased; and we devote a great deal of energy to one particular day with the renewed hope that a sense of peace and joy will infuse us. Even if those feelings don’t characterize us when the celebration is over, we still strive for them the following year. And of course it is sad that many dread Christmas because the traditions that were a part of their past cannot be restored since those who shared the traditions are no longer here to share them.

So is Christmas necessary traditionally? In order to answer this, I want to offer three comments. First, Christmas traditions can be life-enhancing or stifling portions of our lives. It is up to us to decide which they will be. Second, traditions that bring family and friends together should be positive events. The positive nature of them is up to us. Third, traditions that point to the truth of the Incarnation are reminders of God’s glorious provision for us. The way we construct our traditions will either lead us towards or away from this truth.

Is Christmas Necessary Historically or Theologically?

Third, is Christmas necessary historically or theologically? Of our three questions, this is the only one that has a definite affirmative answer. Without the Incarnation there is no hope, and Christmas would be given over completely to economics and traditions devoid of Christ. Malcolm Muggeridge has written poignant phrases to describe the importance of the birth of Christ:

Thanks to the great mercy and marvel of the Incarnation, the cosmic scene is resolved into a human drama. A human drama in which God reached down to relate Himself to man and man reaches up to relate himself to God. Time looks into eternity and eternity into time, making now always and always now. Everything is transformed by this sublime drama of the Incarnation, God’s special parable for man in a fallen world.{23}

These profound comments lead me to consider what probably is the major fallacy of the Christmas season when Christ is not considered. That is, we attempt to “concoct” happiness and meaning without substance. As Muggeridge states, “I find myself more and more strongly aware that this is the true situation: that the hope of man, that he can create through human agency either a happy life as an individual or a satisfactory life as a collectivity, is the ultimate fantasy.”{24} Christmas without the historical birth of Jesus in space and time and the theological implications of that birth leave us grasping for something that cannot be obtained.

But some level of the implications of that birth can be grasped. Let’s reawaken to the awesome presence of God in human flesh! To pass through the Christmas season without thoughtful contemplation of the wonder that “God with us” is shameful. “The Eternal Being, who knows everything and who created the whole universe, became not only a man but (before that) a baby, and before that a fetus inside a Woman’s body. If you want to get the hang of it, think how you would like to become a slug or a crab.”{25} Consider these beautiful, penetrating phrases from the pen of Augustine:

He it is by whom all things were made, and who was made one of all things; who is the revealer of the Father, the creator of the Mother; the Son of God by the Father without a mother, the Son of man by the Mother without a father; the Word who is God before all time, the Word made flesh at a fitting time, the maker of the sun, made under the sun; ordering all the ages from the bosom of the Father, hallowing a day of today from the womb of the Mother; remaining in the former, coming forth from the latter; author of the heaven and the earth, sprung under the heaven out of the earth; unutterably wise, in His wisdom a babe without utterance; filling the world, lying in a manger.{26}

C.S. Lewis contributes two memorable illustrations of the Incarnation as he considers what it means to assert that God descended to us:

In the Christian story God descends to reascend. He comes down; down from the heights of absolute being into time and space, down into humanity….But he goes down to come up again and bring the whole ruined world up with Him. One has the picture of a strong man stooping lower and lower to get himself underneath some great complicated burden. He must stoop in order to lift, he must almost disappear under the load before he incredibly straightens his back and marches off with the whole mass swaying on his shoulders. Or one may think of a diver, first reducing himself to nakedness, then glancing in midair, then gone with a splash, vanished, rushing down through green and warm water into black and cold water, down through increasing pressure into the deathlike region of ooze and slime and old decay; then up again, back to color and light, his lungs almost bursting, till suddenly he breaks surface again, holding in his hand the dripping, precious thing that he went down to recover. He and it are both colored now that they have come up into the light: down below, where it lay colorless in the dark, he lost his color too.{27}

May we “break the surface” of our views of Christmas so that we can recover the precious thing that truly is Christmas: celebration of the birth of Jesus the Savior.

Conclusion

No aspect of the contemporary celebration of Christmas is necessary in an absolute sense. But there is an economic necessity; this can be changed with great effort. Another economic emphasis could be devised at another time of the year for different reasons. There is a traditional necessity; but this can be met through other celebrations. Indeed, this need is met presently by many through other means. There is a historical/theological necessity that cannot be altered. If God had not become flesh, there would be no hope for mankind. There would be no birth of Christ, no death on our behalf, and no resurrection from death to life. Praise God He did humble Himself and become as a man!

Notes

1. Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, vol. III (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1910), 395.
2. Frank Gaebelein, “The Most Beautiful Story Ever Told,” Christianity Today (7 December 1979):19.
3. The New Encyclopaedia Brittanica, Macropaedia, 4:552.
4. Schaff, 396.
5. Ibid.
6. Gaebelein, 19.
7. The New Encyclopaedia Brittanica, 603.
8. Owen Chadwick, The Early Church (Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin, 1967), 126.
9. Schaff, 393.
10. Gaebelein, 19.
11. Ibid.
12. Helen Dunn Frame, “Life Without Christmas: What if they gave our holiday back to the heathens?” The Dallas Morning News: Scene Magazine (9 December 1979), 42.
13. Gaebelein, 19.
14. Frame, 42.
15. Ibid.
16. Ibid.
17. Ibid.
18. Bill Perry, American Holidays (Ephrata, Penn.: Multi-Language Media, 1995), 21-22.
19. The New Encyclopaedia Brittanica, 604.
20. Perry, 20.
21. C.S. Lewis, “What Christmas Means to Me,” God in the Dock (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1970), 304-305.
22. Frame, 42.
23. Malcolm Muggeridge, “Nature is a Parable,” National Review (24 December 1982), 1614.
24. Ibid., 1615.
25. C. S. Lewis, “The Incarnation,” The Joyful Christian (N.Y.: Macmillan,1977), 51.
26. Walter Elwell, “When God Came Down,” Christianity Today (7 December 1979), 17.
27. Lewis, “The Incarnation,” 54-55.

© 1996 Probe Ministries


What’s the Meaning of Life?

Cathy has been married to her husband Dan for twenty years and is the mother of two teenagers. She is very involved in family, church, and community activities. Many consider her to be the model of one that “has it together,” so to speak. Unknown to her family and her many friends, lately she has been thinking a lot about her lifestyle. As a result, she has even questioned whether there is any ultimate meaning or purpose underlying her busyness. At lunch one day she finds herself in an intimate conversation with a good friend named Sarah. Even though they have never talked about such things, Cathy decides to see how Sarah will respond to her questioning. Lets eavesdrop on their conversation.


Cathy: Sarah, Ive been doing some serious thinking lately.


Sarah: Is something wrong?


Cathy: I dont know that I would say something is wrong. I just dont know what to make of these thoughts Ive been having.


Sarah: What thoughts?


Cathy: This may sound like Im going off the deep end or something, but I promise you Im not. Ive just started asking some really heavy questions. And I havent told another soul about it.


Sarah: Well, tell me! You know you can trust me.


Cathy: Okay. But you promise not to laugh or blow it off?


Sarah: Stop being so defensive. Just say it!


Cathy: Sarah, why are you here? I mean, what is your purpose in life?


Sarah: (She pauses before responding flippantly.) Youre right, you have gone off the deep end.


Cathy: Sarah, I need you to be serious with me here!


Sarah: Okay! Im sorry! Im just drawing a blank. Actually, I try not to think about that question.


Cathy: Yeah, well, denying it doesnt work anymore. It just keeps rolling around in my head.


Sarah: Cant you talk to Dan about it?


Cathy: Ive thought about it, but I dont want him to think theres something wrong between us.


Sarah: Well, what about talking to your pastor? I bet hed have some answers.


Cathy: Yeah, Ive thought about that too. Maybe I will.

Is Cathy really “weird,” or is she an example of people that rub shoulders with us each day? And what about Sarah? Was her nervous response typical of how most of us would respond if we were asked questions about meaning and purpose?

James Dobson relates an intriguing story about a remarkable seventeen year old girl who achieved a perfect score on both sections of the “…Scholastic Achievement Test, and a perfect on the tough University of California acceptance index. Never in history has anyone accomplished this intellectual feat, which is almost staggering to contemplate.”{1} Interestingly, though, when a reporter “…asked her, What is the meaning of life? she replied, I have no idea. I would like to know myself.”{2}

This intellectually brilliant young lady has something in common with Cathy and Sarah, doesnt she? She is able to understand complicated subject matter, but she has no idea if life has any meaning.

Our goal in this essay is to see if there is an answer for them, as well as all of us.

The Questions Around Us

As I was driving to my office one day I heard a dramatic radio advertisement for a book. It began something like this: “Would you like to find meaning in life?” As I listened to the remainder of the ad I realized that the books author was focusing on New Age concepts of purpose and meaning. But the striking thing about what was said was that the advertisers obviously believed that they could get the attention of the radio audience by asking about meaning in life. Some may think it is advertising suicide to open an ad with such a question. Or perhaps the author and her publicists are on to something that “strikes a chord” with many people in our culture.

Questions of meaning and purpose are a part of the mental landscape as we enter a new millenium. Some contend this has not always been the case, but that such questions are an unprecedented legacy of the upheavals of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.{3} Others assert that such questions are a result of mans rejection of God.{4}

Even though most of us dont make such issues a part of our normal conversations, the questions tend to lurk around us. They can be heard in songs, movies, books, magazines, and many other media that permeate our lives. For example, Jackson Browne, an exceptionally reflective songwriter of the 60s and 70s, wrote these haunting lyrics in a song entitled For a Dancer:

Into a dancer you have grown
From a seed somebody else has thrown
Go ahead and throw
Some seeds of your own
And somewhere between the time you arrive
And the time you go
May lie a reason you were alive….{5}

Russell Banks, the author of Affliction and The Sweet Hereafter, both of which became Oscar-nominated films, has this to say about his work: “Im not a morbid man. In my writing, Im just trying to describe the world as straightforwardly as I can. I think most lives are desperate and painful, despite surface appearances. If you consider anyones life for long, you find its without meaning.”{6}

Woody Allen, the film writer, director, and actor, has consistently populated his scripts with characters who exchange dialogue concerning meaning and purpose. In Hannah and Her Sisters a character named Mickey says, “Do you realize what a thread were all hanging by? Can you understand how meaningless everything is? Everything. I gotta get some answers.”{7}

Even television ads have focused on meaning, although in a flippant manner. A few years ago you could watch Michael Jordan running across hills and valleys in order to find a guru. When Jordan finds him he asks, “What is the meaning of life?” The guru answers with a maxim that leads to the product that is the real focus of Jordans quest.

Even though such illustrations can be ridiculous, maybe they serve to lead us beyond the surface of our subject. We often get nervous when we are encouraged to delve into subject matter that might stretch us. When we get involved in conversations that go beyond the more mundane things of everyday life we may tend to get tense and defensive. Actually, this can be a good thing. The Christian shouldnt fear such conversations. Indeed, Im confident that if we go beyond the surface, we can find peace and hope.

Beyond the Surface

Listen to the sober words of a famous writer of the twentieth century:

There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy…. I see many people die because they judge that life is not worth living. I see others paradoxically getting killed for the ideas or illusions that give them a reason for living (what is called a reason for living is an excellent reason for dying). I therefore conclude that the meaning of life is the most urgent of questions.{8}

These phrases indicate that Albert Camus, author of The Plague, The Stranger, and The Myth of Sisyphus, was not afraid to go beyond the surface. Camus was bold in exposing the thoughts many were having during his lifetime. In fact, his world view made it obligatory. He was struggling with questions of meaning in light of what some called the “death of God.” That is, if there is no God, can we find meaning? Many have concluded that the answer is a resounding “No!” If true, this means that one who believes there is no God is not living consistently with that belief.

William Lane Craig, one of the great Christian thinkers of our time, states that:

Man cannot live consistently and happily as though life were ultimately without meaning, value or purpose. If we try to live consistently within the atheistic worldview, we shall find ourselves profoundly unhappy. If instead we manage to live happily, it is only by giving the lie to our worldview.{9}

Francis Schaeffer agrees with Craigs analysis, but makes even bolder assertions. He also maintains that the Christian can close the hopeless gap that is created in a persons godless worldview. Listen to what he wrote:

It is impossible for any non-Christian individual or group to be consistent to their system in logic or in practice. Thus, when you face twentieth-century man, whether he is brilliant or an ordinary man of the street, a man of the university or the docks, you are facing a man in tension; and it is this tension which works on your behalf as you speak to him.{10}

What happens when we go “beyond the surface” in order to find meaning? Can a Christian worldview stand up to the challenge? I believe it can, but we must stop and think of whether we are willing to accept the challenge. David Henderson, a pastor and writer, gives us reason to pause and consider our response. He writes:

Our lives, like our Daytimers, are busy, busy, busy, full of things to do and places to go and people to see. Many of us, convinced that the opposite of an empty life is a full schedule, remain content to press on and ignore the deeper questions. Perhaps it is out of fear that we stuff our lives to the wallsfear that, were we to stop and ask the big questions, we would discover there are no satisfying answers after all.{11}

Lets jettison any fear and continue our investigation. There are satisfying answers. It is not necessary to “stuff our lives to the walls” in order to escape questions of meaning and purpose. God has spoken to us. Let us begin to pursue His answers.

Eternity in Our Hearts

The book of Ecclesiastes contains numerous phrases that have entered our discourse. One of those phrases states that God “has made everything appropriate in its time. He has also set eternity in their heart. . .” (3:11). What a fascinating statement! Actually, the first part of the verse can be just as accurately translated “beautiful in its time.” Thus “a harmony of purpose and a beneficial supremacy of control pervade all issues of life to such an extent that they rightly challenge our admiration.”{12} The second part of the verse indicates that “man has a deep-seated sense of eternity, of purposes and destinies.”{13}But man cant fathom the vastness of eternal things, even when he believes in the God of eternity. As a result, all people live with what some call a “God-shaped hole.” Stephen Evans believes this hole can be understood through “the desire for eternal life, the desire for eternal meaning, and the desire for eternal love:”{14}

The desire for eternal life is the most evident manifestation of the need for God. Deep in our hearts we feel death should not be, was not meant to be. The second dimension of our craving for eternity is the desire for eternal meaning. We want lives that are eternally meaningful. We crave eternity, and earthly loves resemble eternity enough to kindle our deepest love. Yet earthly loves are not eternal. Our sense that love is the clue to what its all about is right on target, but earthly love itself merely points us in the right direction. What we want is an eternal love, a love that loves us unconditionally, accepts us as we are, while helping us to become all we can become. In short, we want God, the God of Christian faith.{15}

We must trust God for what we cannot see and understand. Or, to put it another way, we continue to live knowing there is meaning, but we struggle to know exactly what it is at all times. We are striving for what the Bible refers to as our future glorification (Rom. 8:30). “There is something self-defeating about human desire, in that what is desired, when achieved, seems to leave the desire unsatisfied.”{16} For example, we attempt to find meaning while searching for what is beautiful. C.S. Lewis referred to this in a sermon entitled The Weight of Glory:

The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things–the beauty, the memory of our own past–are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have not visited.{17}

Lewis remarkable prose reminds us that meaning must be given to us. “Meaning is never intrinsic; it is always derivative. If my life itself is to have meaning (or a meaning), it thus must derive its meaning from some sort of purposive, intentional activity. It must be endowed with meaning.”{18} Thus we return to God, the giver of meaning.

Meaning: Gods Gift

Think of all the wonderful gifts that God has given you. No doubt you can come up with a lengthy record of Gods goodness. Does your list include meaning or purpose in life? Most people wouldnt think of meaning as part of Gods goodness to us. But perhaps we should. This is because “only a being like God–a creator of all who could eventually, in the words of the New Testament, work all things together for good–only this sort of being could guarantee a completeness and permanency of meaning for human lives.”{19}So how did God accomplish this? The answer rests in His amazing love for us through His Son, Jesus Christ.

Consider the profound words of Carl F.H. Henry: “the eternal and self-revealed Logos, incarnate in Jesus Christ, is the foundation of all meaning.”{20} Bruce Lockerbie puts it like this: “The divine nature manifesting itself in the physical form of Jesus of Nazareth is, in fact, the integrating principle to which all life adheres, the focal point from which all being takes its meaning, the source of all coherence in the universe. Around him and him alone all else may be said to radiate. He is the Cosmic Center.”{21}

Picture a bicycle. When you ride one you are putting your weight on a multitude of spokes that radiate from a hub. All the spokes meet at the center and rotate around it. The bicycle moves based upon the center. Thus it is with Christ. He is the center around whom we move and find meaning. Our focus is on Him.

When the apostle Paul reflected on meaning and purpose in his life in Phillipians 3, he came to this conclusion (emphases added):

7…whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 8 More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish in order that I may gain Christ, 9 and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith, 10 that I may know Him, and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; 11 in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.

Did you notice how Christ was central to what Paul had to say about both his past and present? And did you notice that he used phrases such as “knowing Christ,” or “that I may gain Christ?” Such statements appear to be crucial to Pauls sense of meaning and purpose. Paul wants “to know” Christ intimately, which means he wants to know by experience. “Paul wants to come to know the Lord Jesus in that fulness of experimental knowledge which is only wrought by being like Him.”{22}

Personally, Pauls thoughts are important words of encouragement in my life. God through Christ gives meaning and purpose to me. And until I am glorified, I will strive to know Him and be like Him. Praise God for Jesus Christ, His gift of meaning!

Notes

1. James Dobson, Focus on the Family Newsletter (May 1996).
2. Ibid.
3. Gerhard Sauter, The Question of Meaning, trans. and ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1982).
4. Charles R. Swindoll, Living on the Ragged Edge (Waco, TX: Word, 1985).
5. Jackson Browne, “For a Dancer,” in James F. Harris, Philosophy at 33 1/3 rpm: Themes of Classic Rock Music (Chicago: Open Court, 1993), 68.
6. Russell Banks, in Jerome Weeks, “Continental Divide,” The Dallas Morning News (2 March 1999), 2C.
7. Woody Allen, Hannah and Her Sisters, in Thomas V. Morris, Making Sense of It All: Pascal and the Meaning of Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992), 54.
8. Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, trans. Justin OBrien (New York: Vintage, 1960), 3-4.
9. William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1994), 71.
10. Francis A. Schaeffer, The God Who Is There (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1968), 122.
11. David W. Henderson, Culture Shift: Communicating Gods Truth to Our Changing World (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1998), 186.
12. H.C. Leupold, Exposition of Ecclesiastes (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1952), 90.
13. Ibid., 91.
14. C. Stephen Evans, Why Believe? Reason and Mystery as Pointers to God, revised ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 58-60.
15. Ibid.
16. Alistair McGrath, A Cloud of Witnesses (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1990), 127.
17. C.S. Lewis, in “The Weight of Glory,” quoted in Alistair McGrath, A Cloud of Witnesses, 127.
18. Morris, 57.
19. Ibid., 62.
20. Carl F.H. Henry, God Revelation and Authority, Vol. III (Waco, TX: Word, 1979), 195.
21. D. Bruce Lockerbie, The Cosmic Center: The Supremacy of Christ in a Secular Wasteland (Portland, OR: Multnomah, 1986),127-128.
22. Kenneth S. Wuest, Wuests Word Studies From the Greek New Testament, Volume Two (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1973), 93.

©1999 Probe Ministries.

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Sheep Among Wolves

What’s the Problem?

In Colossians 2:8, Paul states that a Christian should . . .

See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ.

Paul’s words have particular application for the Christian student who is about to engage in the intellectual and social combat that can be found on many of our college campuses. Our higher educational institutions are often incubators for non-Christian thought and life. Christian students must be advised to be prepared. Too many of them are “taken captive.” Consider these few examples:

• A sociology professor asked her students, “How many of you believe abortion is wrong? Stand up.” Five students stood. She told them to continue standing. She then asked, “Of you five, how many believe it is wrong to distribute condoms in middle schools?” One was left standing. The professor left this godly young lady standing in silence for a long time and then told her she wanted to talk with her after class. During that meeting the student was told if she persisted in such beliefs she would have a great deal of difficulty receiving her certification as a social worker.

• During the first meeting of an architecture class at a large state university the students were told to lie on the floor. The professor then turned off the lights and taught them to meditate. (Be assured they were not meditating on Scripture.)

• At a church-related university a professor stated, “Communism is definitely superior to any other political-economic system.”

• In an open declaration on the campus at Harvard, the university chaplain announced he is homosexual.

• When asked how he responds to students who confess strong Christian convictions, a professor stated, “If they don’t know what and why they believe, I will change them.”

• In a university dormitory crowded with over 100 students I declared that Jesus is the only way to God. Many of the students expressed their strong disagreement and anger. One student was indignant because he realized my statement concerning Christ logically meant that his belief in a Native American deity was wrong. Even some Christian students were uncomfortable. They had uneasiness about it because it seemed too intolerant.

These are but a few of many illustrations and statistics that could be cited as indication of contemporary college life. The ideas that are espoused on many of our campuses can understandably bewilder the Christian student. What can be done to help them in their preparation? In this article I will offer some suggestions that can serve to give them guidance.

Develop a Christian Worldview

A critical component in the arsenal of any Christian heading off to college is to develop a Christian worldview. Everyone has a world view whether they have thought about it or not. To understand how important a worldview is consider a jigsaw puzzle with thousands of pieces. In order to put the puzzle together you need to see the picture on the box top. You need to know what the puzzle will look like when you finish it. If you only had the pieces and no box top, you would probably experience a great deal of frustration. You may not even want to begin the task, much less finish it. The box top gives you a guide and helps you put together the “pieces” of life.

The box top in a Christian worldview is provided by the revealed truth of the Bible. The Bible contains the correct picture to help us assemble the individual pieces we encounter in life. Other world views will always get some portion of the picture right, but a few important pieces will always seem out of place. It’s important for a young Christian college student to have some idea of which pieces are out of place in other worldviews as well as a foundational understanding of a Christian worldview.

Essentially a worldview is a set of assumptions or presuppositions we hold about the basic make-up of our universe that influences everything we do and say. For instance, within a Christian world view we wake up in the morning assuming that God exists and that He cares about what happens to you.

There are four essential truths that help us evaluate different worldviews.

The first truth is that something exists. This may seem obvious, but many people aren’t sure. Many forms of pantheism argue that the material world is just an illusion. The only reality is spiritual. If this were actually the case, then physical consequences wouldn’t matter. However, I have yet to find a pantheist who is willing to perform their meditation on a railroad track without knowing the train schedule.

The second truth is that all people have absolutes. There are always some things that people recognize as true, all the time. For Christians, God is the ultimate reference point to determine truth. Even the statement, “There are no absolutes!” is to declare absolutely that there are no absolutes.

Third, truth is something that can’t be both true and false at the same time. This is critical in our current time. A contemporary idea is that all religions are the same. This sounds gracious, but it’s nonsense. While various religions can often have some elements in common, if they differ in the crucial areas of creation, sin, salvation, heaven, and hell, then the similarities are what is trivial, not the differences.

Last, we need to realize that all people exercise faith. What matters is the object of our faith. We all use faith to operate through the day. We exercise faith every time we take medication. We assume it will help us and not harm us. Carl Sagan’s famous statement that “The cosmos is all that is, or ever was, or ever will be” is a statement of naturalistic faith not scientific truth.

Take Ownership of Beliefs

Parents need to help their student headed off to college to take ownership of their faith. Too often Christian young people spend their pre-college years repeating phrases and doctrines without intellectual conviction. They need to go beyond clichés. A few of us at Probe have questioned Christian high school students about their faith by posing as an atheistic college professor. When pressed to explain why they believe as they do, the responses get rather embarrassing. They’ll say, “That’s what my parents taught me,” or “That’s what I’ve always heard,” or “I was raised that way,” or “That’s what my pastor said.”

If this is the best a student can do, they are simply grist for the mill. They are easily ground down to dust. Paul wrote to young Timothy saying, “Continue in the things you have learned and become convinced of, knowing from whom you have learned them” (2 Tim. 3:14). Timothy was taught by his mother, grandmother, and Paul. He not only learned about his faith from them, but he became convinced that it was true.

This means you are to know not just what you believe but also why. Ask yourself or your student why he or she is a Christian? If this question stumps you, you’ve got some thinking and exploring to do. The apostle Peter said to always be prepared to give a defense to anyone who asks for an account of the hope that is in you. (1 Peter 3:15)

Peter wrote that we are always to be ready, and we are to respond to everyone who asks. These are all-encompassing words that indicate the importance of the task of apologetics. If the student is going to live and think as a Christian on campus he will be asked to defend his faith. Such an occasion will not be nearly as threatening if he or she has been allowed to ask their own questions and have received answers from their home or church.

For instance, how would you answer these questions if someone who really wants to know asked them of you? “Is there really a God?” “Why believe in miracles?” “How accurate is the Bible?” “Is Christ the only way to God?” “Is there any truth in other religions?”

Such questions are legitimate and skeptics deserve honest answers to their tough questions. How they receive the answer is between God and them. Our responsibility is to provide the answers as best as we can in a loving manner. To say, “I don’t know, I just believe,” will leave the impression that Christianity is just a crutch and therefore only for the weak and feeble-minded.

The Mind Is Important

A student needs to understand that the mind is important in a Christian’s life. In fact, a Christian is required to use his mind if he desires to know more of God and His works among us. The acts of reading and studying Scripture certainly require mental exercise. Even if a person can’t read, he still has to use his mind to respond to what is taught from Scripture. For example, Jesus responded to a scribe by stating the most important commandment:

Hear O Israel; the Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. (Mark 12:29-30)

The use of our mind refers not only to Scripture. We need to abolish the sacred/secular barrier many of us have erected. Colossians 3:17 says, “And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to Him through God the Father.” Paul pretty much covers it. It’s hard to come up with anything additional after using the words “whatever” and “all.” This includes our academic studies.

The first chapter of Daniel offers amazing insights into this issue. Daniel and his friends were taught everything that the “University of Babylon” could offer them; they graduated with highest honors and with their faith strengthened. God honored them in the task and even gave them the knowledge they needed to grapple with Babylonian ideas. (Daniel 1:17, 20)

If Daniel’s situation is applied to a contemporary Christian student’s life, there is an important lesson to be learned. That is, the young Jewish boys learned and understood what they were taught, but that does not mean they believed it. Many students have asked how to respond on papers and exams that include ideas they don’t believe. As with Daniel and his peers, they should demonstrate their understanding to the best of their ability, but they cannot be forced to believe it. Understanding and believing are not necessarily the same thing. But a certain level of understanding is crucial in knowing where these ideas fail to meet reality.

If Christian students have also been allowed to ask questions at home and at church, then they can apply the lessons learned by asking questions of those of differing faiths. This will allow them to expose the inconsistencies of these competing worldviews in a respectful manner.

Many Christian students enter an ungodly educational arena every year. They should be encouraged with the understanding that God’s truth will prevail, as it did for Daniel and his friends. For all truth is God’s truth.

How Do We Teach these Things?

Coming to the end of our discussion on preparing students to defend their faith in college, you may be asking, “How can I apply some of these suggestions in my life with students?” The following ideas are offered with the belief that you can use your imagination and arrive at even better ones.

First do role-plays with your students occasionally. This can be done either with an individual or a group.

For example, as alluded to previously, find someone from outside your church or school that the students don’t know. This person should have a working knowledge of the ways non-Christians think. Introduce him to the group as a college professor researching the religious beliefs of high school students.

The “professor” should begin to ask them a series of blunt questions regarding their beliefs. The idea is to challenge every cliché the students may use in their responses. Nothing is to be accepted without definition or elaboration. After ten minutes or so, reveal who the professor really is and assure them he is a Christian. Then go over some of the answers and begin to reveal what they could have said.

This would also be good time to implement a second suggestion, and that is to teach a special course on apologetics for upper high school students. You’ve definitely got their attention now and they will be much more attentive.

Another idea is if you live near a college or university, ask to be put on their mailing list for upcoming lectures from visiting scholars. After attending one of these lectures, discuss it with your student. See if they can identify the speaker’s worldview and where what they said conflicts with a Christian worldview. This would also be a good place to model asking good questions if a question and answer period is allowed.

When considering a college or university, the student should not only visit the campus to investigate campus life but also the intellectual atmosphere. Visit with representatives of a local college ministry or a Christian faculty member and inquire of their opinion of the likely intellectual challenges they can expect to find. This would also be a good opportunity to ask about resources available for Christian students who face challenges in the classroom.

Finally, consider sending your student to a Probe Mind Games Conference. A schedule of all our upcoming conferences is available on our website at www.probe.org. Just click on the Mind Games button on the home page to open a menu of information on our conferences. Or better yet, organize one of these conferences in your own community. Probe travels around the country in order to help youth, college students, their parents, and the church at large prepare for contemporary life.

©2001 Probe Ministries.


Christian Cliches

Conversations and Clichés

Do you ever use clichés? Do you hear them often? No doubt you can answer “Yes” to either question. But have you stopped to consider what they may mean? Christians often use clichés among themselves and even with non-Christians, but there may be a need to give thought to the meanings of these oft- repeated phrases. That is the intent of this essay. We will investigate what is behind the “Christian clichés” that tend to become so much a part of our conversations.

Let’s begin by considering a dictionary definition of the word cliché. A cliché is a “trite, stereotyped expression; a sentence or phrase, usually expressing a popular or common thought or idea, that has lost originality, ingenuity, and impact by long overuse.”{1}

My ministry has put me in touch with Christians all over this country. As I engage in conversation with these Christians, invariably I will hear language about Christian things that has become “stereotyped” and has “lost impact by long overuse.” This doesn’t mean there isn’t truth contained in the clichés. Indeed, often there is truth of great importance for Christian theology and life. The problem is that frequently we use these clichés while thinking we know what we are saying. But do we? Could we explain these phrases if someone were to ask us to define them? My experience is that Christians have difficulty when asked to explain themselves.

Let’s listen to the following conversation and hear how a Christian named Tom responds to questions from a non-believer named Sam.


Tom: Hi, Sam!


Sam: Hello, Tom. Remember when you were to talking to Jim yesterday?


Tom: You mean before the sales meeting?


Sam: Yeah. I hope you aren’t offended, but I was listening to your conversation.


Tom: Oh, that’s okay. We weren’t having a private conversation. We were just sharing our beliefs.


Sam: Well, I’m curious about some of the things you discussed.


Tom: Like what?


Sam: Like when you said you have Jesus in your heart. Were you referring to the Prophet who lived so long ago? If so, how can you possibly have Him in your heart?


Tom: Well, yes, I was referring to the Jesus of long ago. But He is alive now, and He has saved me.


Sam: What do you mean, He’s alive now? That’s not possible. And what do you mean when you say He saved you? These are weird ideas.


Tom: I guess they sound weird, but they really aren’t. You see, Jesus rose from the dead, ascended into heaven, and His spirit lives in me.


Sam: Tom, I don’t mean to be rude, but such things sound ludicrous to me. Hey, my phone’s ringing and I’m expecting an important call. Maybe we can talk again later.

Sam asked some good questions. They deserved answers. But was Tom able to explain himself? He had a difficult time, didn’t he? For example, the phrase, “I have Jesus in my heart” had become a cliché for Tom. He was able to converse with a fellow Christian with the assumption that they understood one another. But it was a different matter when a non-Christian expressed his curiosity about the conversation he had heard the previous day.


I have Jesus in my heart is one of several clichés we will consider. The goal of this article is to motivate Christians to give attention to our conversations and see if you find clichés lurking there.

I Have Jesus in My Heart

 

Why are you a Christian? How do you answer that question? In my experience many people have responded by stating that they have Jesus in their heart. As important as this response may be, too often it is a cliché that belies its meaning. The Christian who acknowledges the importance of thinking through his beliefs will want to consider its implications for those who hear him. After all, the one who hears has every right to ask what such a statement might mean.

In the third chapter of Paul’s Ephesian letter he prayed that his readers would “be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man; so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith . . .” (Eph. 3:16-17, NASB). Galatians 2 contains one of the most powerful expressions of the indwelling Christ in Paul’s life. Paul wrote, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me . . .” (Gal. 2:20, NASB). In his second letter to the Corinthians Paul asks, “do you not recognize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?” (2 Cor. 13:5, NASB). These passages, and many more, serve to show that the New Testament affirms that Jesus indwells His followers. Thus it is important to stress that when someone says I have Jesus in my heart it has biblical merit. A problem arises, though, when we use this expression without attention to its profound message. When this happens we are using a cliché.

So how can we go beyond the cliché in order to describe its significance in our lives? The first point of reference centers on the fact that Christians are Trinitarian, not Unitarian. We believe God exists in three persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This is a difficult doctrine to understand and share, but it must be upheld if one is using the Bible as the guide for beliefs. If God exists in three persons, and one of those persons is Jesus, God the Son, then we can better understand Jesus in my heart by observing that there is a unity between Jesus and the Holy Spirit. For example, in Romans 8 “the indwelling of the Spirit and the indwelling of Christ are the same thing.”{2} This doctrine permeates the writings of Paul. He asserted “that Jesus is no mere fact in history, no towering personality of the past, but a living, present Spirit, whose nature is the very nature of God.”{3} In addition, we should realize that Paul’s favorite expression revolved around the phrase “in Christ.” This phrase “(or some cognate expression, such as “in the Lord,” “in Him,” etc.) occurs 164 times in Paul.”{4} Thus we can conclude that Jesus is very much alive in the Christian’s life through the Spirit.

The second point of reference concerns the word heart. The Bible refers to the heart of man frequently. “The heart is the focus of mind, feeling, and will; it stands for the whole personality.”{5} Jesus is to “take up residence” in our whole personality. So when a Christian says Jesus is in my heart there is a literal implication. Jesus resides supernaturally in the believer through His Spirit. This is an astounding doctrine that indicates a transformed person! May our Lord lead us to continue sharing His presence in our lives by indicating that we understand truly what it means to say I have Jesus in my heart.

I Have Faith

Is a Christian the only person who has faith? Many Christians seem to think so. On many occasions I have played “the devil’s advocate” among Christian groups by asking them to describe and defend their beliefs. One of the most frequent responses I get is I have faith. When I hear this I usually retort by saying “So what? Do you think that because you are a Christian you are given sole ownership of the idea?” After this I encourage them to think about the implications of the phrase. It is much more than a cliché.

All people, Christians and non-Christians, even atheists, exercise faith. That is, each day of our lives we apply faith in simple and profound ways. For example, you may take a pill of some kind today. That requires faith that the pill will help you rather than hurt you. If you travel on an airplane, that requires faith that you will arrive safely at your intended destination. Usually you don’t even see the pilots until you have landed. These are everyday illustrations of faith. But just what does this word mean?

A major dictionary provides us with intriguing definitions. The first entry states that faith is “confidence or trust in a person or thing.” The second entry says faith is “belief which is not based on proof.” And then in the eighth entry the dictionary declares faith is “trust in God and in His promises as made through Christ by which man is justified or saved.”{6} Obviously the eighth entry comes closest to a Christian understanding of faith. The first entry is also important to a Christian because it includes the idea of trust in a person. But it is the second entry that causes the most problem among Christians. Too many Christians use I have faith to mean they believe in something that is not based on proof. Unfortunately, this is when the phrase becomes a cliché.

For over 100 years, naturalism has been the dominant worldview in our culture. Among other things, this worldview bows at the altar of modern science to the extent that many believe that nothing can be true until it can be proven scientifically. Many Christians have been highly influenced by this concept. Thus they tend to say I have faith when they can’t “prove” their beliefs in a scientific manner. This reaction is not legitimate within a Christian worldview. It is important to realize that even an atheistic scientist takes faith into the laboratory. There are facets of his own life that cannot be “proven” scientifically. If he is married, he may say he loves his wife. Can that be proven scientifically?

The key word in discussing faith is in, a small but crucial preposition for all people. Remember, the first dictionary definition we quoted said that faith includes the idea of “trust in a person or thing” (emphasis added). Hebrews 11:1, perhaps the most succinct definition of faith in the Bible, states that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” When we read the rest of chapter 11 we realize that assurance and conviction are words that are alive. They refer to the reality of the living God in the lives of those who put faith in His reality. God was already “proven” to them. He was to be trusted with their very lives.

The same is true for one who claims to be a Christian in our day. When we say we have faith, we should continue by declaring faith in the living God.

I’m Saved!

When you say I’m saved!, have you ever considered what someone may be thinking? People who hear you may have a number of questions. For example, they may ask why you are speaking in present tense. If you are saved now, does that mean you were actually saved at some point in the past? If so, does the present connect with the past in some way? Or they may want to know why you needed to be saved in the first place. Were you drowning and someone rescued you? Maybe they would even like to know if you are saved for something or someone. Proclaiming I’m saved! can be a strange expression if it is not explained. If someone asks for an explanation and we can’t respond, we may be guilty of using a cliché. We think we know what we mean, and our fellow Christians may think they know what is meant, but a lack of articulation implies a lack of understanding.

Salvation, of course, permeates the Bible. And innumerable volumes have been written about what the Scriptures tell us about this crucial doctrine. For our purposes the clearest emphases are centered on the person of Jesus, the Savior. When we say I’m saved! we imply that Jesus is at the center of salvation.

Before Jesus was born, an angel told Joseph the shocking news that Mary was carrying the center of salvation. “And she will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for it is He who will save His people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21, NASB). Take note of the last portion of this verse. It states that Jesus will save, and that He will save from sins. When Jesus was an infant, Mary and Joseph took Him to the temple for the Jewish rites of redemption of the firstborn, and the purification of his mother. . . .”{7} While there, they were approached by a righteous and devout man named Simeon who took Jesus into his arms and declared to God that he was now ready to die, “For my eyes have seen Thy salvation . . .” (Luke 2:30, NASB). Another amazing declaration! Mary and Joseph’s son was being called God’s salvation. During His earthly ministry Jesus asserted many things about Himself, including this famous proclamation: “I am the door; if anyone enters through Me, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture” (John 10:9, NASB). Because Jesus is the door, there is a present reality concerning salvation that applies to those who enter through the door.

Through these and numerous other verses we have a more complete picture of what I’m saved! entails. But there is a crucial question leaping from such passages. If sin creates the need for salvation, then what is it? To put it simply, when the Christian proclaims I’m saved! his hearers should understand that “. . . sin is not only an act of wrongdoing but a state of alienation from God”{8} affecting everyone (Rom. 3:23). This is a crucial concept in contemporary culture that is generally misunderstood and rejected. In addition, such alienation from God cannot be rectified by “rightdoing.” It can only be rectified through Jesus’ sacrificial payment for sin on the cross. I’m saved because of what Jesus did for me. In an amazing, life-changing way an event of the past brings salvation into the present. Praise God, we have been saved! Now we can live knowing salvation is in the present.

What Would Jesus Do?

What Would Jesus Do? is a question that can be seen and heard virtually everywhere in the evangelical Christian community. “The slogan has appeared on coffee mugs, lapel pins, paperweights, and a host of other knickknacks. There are now devotionals, Bibles, books and CDs based on WWJD.”{9} With all of this exposure, does the phrase still have meaning? Or has it become a cliché without proper impact? Or does it carry the correct content in the first place? Lets consider what the expression tells us.

One of the more positive aspects of What Would Jesus Do? is that it can serve as a simple reminder of the Christian’s moral life. Surely each Christian has a perspective of Jesus that includes the moral perfection that permeated His earthly life. There is no greater model to emulate than Jesus. The writer of Hebrews tells us that Jesus was “tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15, NASB). The same writer tells us He “offered Himself without blemish to God . . .” (Heb. 9:14, NASB). Jesus was and is the only one who could make such an unblemished offering. So asking What Would Jesus Do?, whether audibly or inaudibly, can awaken us to our need for a moral model.

But can we always know what Jesus would do in all circumstances? Perhaps it would be more accurate to ask What did Jesus do? in certain circumstances. Through a study of the gospels of the New Testament we can learn exactly how Jesus acted and reacted to specific challenges He faced. For example, He was faced with “moral conflicts between obedience toward parents and God (Luke 2), Sabbath regulations and healing (Mark 2), and government and God (Matt. 22).”{10} More importantly, on the cross “he was squeezed between the demands of justice for the innocent (himself) and mercy for mankind (the guilty). This conflict was without question the greatest ever faced by man. . . .”{11} These examples usually have entered our consciousness to the point that they ring in our minds like bells tolling the truth. It is as if we would not have expected Jesus to have done or said anything other than what we know from the gospels.

Were Jesus’ disciples ever surprised, if not shocked, by what Jesus did? Of course we know they often were stunned as they watched and heard Jesus do and say unusual things. The words amazed and astonished are found frequently in the Gospels. The story of the rich young ruler, for example, relates the disciples’ reaction after hearing Jesus’ teaching. He said, “How hard it will be for those who are wealthy to enter the kingdom of God!” (Mark 10:23, NASB). And the disciples were “amazed” at His words. Jesus continued by stating, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” And they were “even more astonished” and said to Him, “Then who can be saved?” (Mark 10:23-26, NASB).

The actions and words of Jesus and the reactions of the disciples remind us of the deity of Jesus. Think of this in present time. If Jesus physically walked beside you, would you always know what He was about to do? “Jesus is unique in his identity as the incarnate Son of God, and we should not assume that we could do or should do everything he did.”{12} Thus, caution is urged when we assume we always know what Jesus would do while we affirm what Jesus did do.

Notes

  1. The Random House Dictionary of the English Language, 1967.
  2. Lewis B. Smedes, Union with Christ, revised ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1983), 114.
  3. James Stewart, A Man in Christ (New York: Harper & Row, n.d.; reprint ed., Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1984), 154.
  4. Ibid., 155.
  5. A. Skevington Wood, “Ephesians,” in The Expositors Bible Commentary, vol. 11, gen. ed. Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan/Regency, 1978), 51.
  6. The Random House Dictionary.
  7. Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1969), 194.
  8. Donald G. Bloesch, “Sin,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1984).
  9. Albert Hsu, “What Would Jesus Do About WWJD?”, re:generation quarterly (Winter, 1998/99), 6.
  10. Norman L. Geisler, Christian Ethics: Options and Issues (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1989), 125.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Hsu, “What Would Jesus Do About “WWJD”, 6.

 

©1999 Probe Ministries.


Why Care About History?

Why Care About History? Because History Defines Us

Let’s listen to a typical conversation between two people who are meeting each other at a convention.

Carl: Hello! My name is Carl Simpson.

James: Hello! My name is James Cameron.

Carl: Where are you from, James?

James: Well, I grew up in the Miami area, but I’ve lived in Dallas for the past twenty years.

Carl: Really? I grew up in the Miami area.

James: Oh yeah, where?

Carl: Near Little Havana.

James: That’s interesting. I grew up in Coral Gables.

Carl: Did you attend Coral Gables High School?

James: Yes, I did.

Carl: Did you play football?

James: As a matter of fact, yes. I was the starting fullback in 1963, my senior year.

Carl: You’re kidding! I was the starting middle linebacker that year and the next. We must have “butted heads” a few times.

James: Actually, now that I think about it, I can remember running over you a few times during the ’63 game. You do recall that we won and went on to win the state championship, don’t you?

Carl: Well, I certainly don’t remember you running over me. But yes, I do remember your success that year. Of course you remember you won our game because of that ridiculous pass interference call on me in the end zone with 30 seconds left, don’t you?

James: That was you, wasn’t it? Well, looking back I have to admit it was a pretty lousy call.

Carl: I’m amazed that we’ve met like this after all these years. What’s your occupation?

James: I work for a computer consulting firm in Dallas. That’s why I’m at this convention.

Carl: That’s remarkable! I work for the same type of company in Miami.

James: Well, it looks as if there is a lot we can talk about. What are you doing for dinner tonight?

Carl: I don’t have any plans at the moment.

James: Great! Why don’t we meet in the lobby at 6:30 and go to dinner?

Carl: Wonderful! I’ll see you then!

This fictional encounter is not so farfetched that we can’t identify with it. Even though we may not have been football players, all of us can share stories of how we have met people. Usually we enter such encounters by sharing our past–our history. And we listen as the person we are meeting does the same. Our history defines us. Before we share who we are in present time, we usually share our past. In this way, and many other ways, we demonstrate the importance of history in our personal lives.

In much the same way, we tend to think of historical markers that provide us with a collective sense of cohesiveness. For example, some vividly remember the day President Roosevelt declared war on Japan. That day is indelibly written on their minds. They probably have many stories to tell about where they were and who was with them when they heard the declaration. They can share their feelings about how that day changed their lives. The same can be said of those who first heard of the assassination of President Kennedy. Or many can relate the experience of watching television as the first man walked on the moon. Events such as these will be passed from generation to generation as personal and collective markers.

What are the historical markers in your life and the lives of those you love? Do such markers make a difference in your lives? Surely the answer is a resounding “Yes”!

Why Care About History? Because the Bible Contains History

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth (Gen. 1:1). This most famous of biblical verses has been referenced for a variety of reasons. Let’s give thought to it in light of its historical implications.

Consider the opening phrase: In the beginning. The Hebrew word for beginning means “the first–in place, time, order or rank.” Thus the verse asserts that God was making history. He was doing something for the first time. He was creating the universe. An event was taking place. The Bible is clear about the fact that this was the first historical event. The universe was created, thus it is not eternal.

This amazing starting point provides a harbinger of what is to come in the biblical record. It is as if this initial declaration is intended to alert us to a critical element of the Bible: it is a historical record. It contains a record of God’s actions within His creation, especially His interaction with man. “The Bible clearly delineates the decisive issues in the human struggle as a course of events in which God is everywhere active either in mercy or in judgment.”{1} Thus a student of the biblical chronicle is challenged to take history seriously. This has been true from the time of the early Hebrews. “In a world where others interpreted all that happens as cyclical process, the Hebrews with their awareness of God’s active revelation in external human affairs instituted the very idea of history.”{2}

In our time it is critical that Christians continue in the line of the ancient Hebrews. History is under attack from many quarters for many reasons. “Some . . . consider the past without value because they assume either that anything historical is insignificant or that anything temporal is relative, or that the present has evolutionary superiority, or that only the supertemporal and eternal has divine import or, more radically, that no God whatever exists to reveal himself in history.”{3} A Christian worldview, based on Scripture, cannot subscribe to such perspectives. If such views were given credence, Christianity would no longer depend on the events on which it is based. Instead, it would be viewed as the product of the mythology that some claim for it. The record of God’s work among us would be reduced to nothing more than the result of someone’s vivid imagination.

Of course a Christian who is mentally and spiritually vigorous will continue to affirm the authenticity of the history contained in the Bible. Consider the way in which the text propels us forward toward a grand consummation. One is hard pressed to mangle the Bible in order to assert anything other than the hand of divine providence. To put it in contemporary terms, biblical history is going somewhere. This perspective is in contrast to those who see all history as chaotic, circular, or meaningless. The linear nature of the Bible teaches us that what has happened is important, because it touches what is happening and what will happen. “From its inception, Christianity has been a religion with a past. Without that past, Christians could have no grounded hope for the future.”{4} Genesis speaks of the beginning, Revelation speaks of the end. In between, the Bible gives coherence to the beginning and the end, because the God of both is Alpha and Omega.

Why Care About History? Because Jesus Took History Seriously

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God (John 1:1). This startling introduction to John’s gospel gives us a wealth of insight about Jesus Christ, the Word. Among those insights is that Jesus is introduced in both eternal and historic terms. As the first chapter continues, we note that the Word has entered time and space, as Francis Schaeffer was fond of saying. Consider some of the phrases:

There was the true light which, coming into the world, enlightens every man [v. 9].

He was in the world . . . [v. 10].

He came to His own . . . [v. 11].

And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory . . . [v. 14].

. . . grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ [v. 17].

Note the verb forms in these phrases: coming, was, came, became, were realized. All of them are indicators of the fact that Jesus, the Word, entered history. The importance of such observations cannot be exaggerated. Jesus entered history and made history. In fact, He is the Lord of history. Let’s consider how this Lord affirmed history after such an auspicious beginning.

Early in His ministry Jesus returned to His hometown of Nazareth, entered the synagogue on the Sabbath, and began to read from the scroll of Isaiah. In particular, He read from what we now know as chapter 61, which contains a strong prophecy concerning His ministry. After reading the text, He sat down and boldly proclaimed, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21). He followed this amazing statement with a brief exposition of events surrounding the prophets Elijah and Elisha. His audience reacted by driving Him out of the city and trying to kill Him.

As always, much could be written about this incident, but let’s simply reflect on what Jesus implied about history. First, Jesus took Isaiah’s prophecy seriously as history. In other words, what Isaiah wrote is to be seen as something written in past time in reference to an actual future event. Second, Jesus claimed to be the one about whom Isaiah prophesied, a claim guaranteed to get the attention of His Jewish audience. Third, by referring to Elijah and Elisha, Jesus proceeded to give assent to biblical history.

One of the most profound ways in which our Lord emphasized the importance of history is found in the event of the Last Supper. “And when He had taken some bread and given thanks, He broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me’” (Luke 22:19). The last phrase, “do this in remembrance of Me,” indicates how His disciples are to focus on this singular event. It is a historical marker we are not to forget.

In his first letter to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul affirms the historicity of the Lord’s Supper by quoting Jesus’ statement. Paul then interprets the supper by teaching about the result of our obedience. He writes, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes (1 Cor. 11:26). Thus, when we partake of the Lord’s Supper we are proclaiming the awesome nature of Christ’s crucifixion within the unfolding historical drama of God’s work of redemption.

Why Care About History? Because Christian Beliefs are Based on History

If you call yourself a Christian, how would you explain what that means to others? Would you include historical emphases? Would you base your statements on events that took place in the past? Or would you only share what is happening in your life now? What is happening now certainly is very important, but present experiences are valid because of what happened in the past. For example, to say something about “the Christ” in your life can be meaningless historically. But the person who turns to Scripture when referring to Christ must endorse a real person acting in real history.

One of the most significant ways to establish the importance of history for Christian beliefs is to focus on two biblical turning points, the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. “Christianity is . . . a historical religion in the sense that the actual occurrence of certain events like the crucifixion and the resurrection is a necessary condition for its truth.”{5} This necessity distinguishes Christianity from the world religions. In contrast to the Buddha, for example, the weight of the claims of Christ rests on what He did in space and time, not just what He taught.

In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul expounds on this.

[v. 3] For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures,
[v. 4] and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, v. 5 and that He appeared. . . .

Let’s note several things about these verses. First, Paul uses the phrase of first importance to alert his readers; there is nothing of greater importance than what he has to say to them. Second, he writes that the death and resurrection of Jesus are the events of first importance. Third, Paul not only stresses the importance of the events, he interprets them theologically and historically. Jesus died for our sins, a crucial theological statement. He was buried, and He was raised on the third day, which are historical statements. All of this was the historical culmination of Scriptural prophecy. Fourth, Paul asserts that Jesus physically appeared to over 500 people, including Peter and the disciples, James, and Paul himself.

After his stress on the historical death and resurrection, Paul continues by reasoning with his readers concerning the emptiness of Christianity without the resurrection. Ponder these familiar verses and see if one can claim to be a Christian without affirming Paul’s reasoning.

[v. 12] Now if Christ is preached, that He has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?
[v. 13] But if there is no resurrection of the dead, not even Christ has been raised; v. 14 and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain.

Please note the word vain and apply it to what it means to be a Christian. The word also can be translated empty. If the resurrection didn’t happen historically, Christianity has no anchor; it is empty of ultimate meaning. Jesus is a dead prophet, or He was just another in a long list of religious teachers.

Thank God we can call ourselves Christians because Christ has been raised. There is hope; there is meaning; the Christ of the true Christian is alive.

Why Care About History? Because History Touches Our Lives

Have you ever had amnesia? Do you know someone who has suffered with it? Most of us can’t affirmatively answer either of those questions. We can only imagine what it would be like to forget the past. What if you couldn’t remember your name or where you were born? What if you couldn’t remember your parents, or your spouse, or your children, or any of your friends? These questions help us consider how history touches our lives. In ways we seldom consider, history affects us, both positively and negatively.

We are inseparably linked to people of the past. “Without examples, without imitation, there can be no human life or civilization, no art or culture, no virtue or holiness.”{6 }Think about ancient Greece, for example. It still lingers in our midst. We have been touched in numerous ways by Greek government, art, literature, and philosophy. People like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle affect contemporary American life, even if we aren’t consciously aware of it.

Now think of Christian history. The Christian who chooses to take history seriously will note that he has a significant lineage. The New Testament book of Hebrews emphasizes this. In chapter 11 the writer reminds us of the faith of biblical characters such as Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Joseph, Moses, David, Samuel, and many others. In chapter 12 such characters are referred to as a “great cloud of witnesses” (Heb. 12:1) who are to serve as examples to us. Their deeds within space and time are important now. Then the writer focuses our attention on Jesus by stating that Jesus is ” . . . the author and perfecter of faith . . . who . . . endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12: 2). Note that these statements are centered on actions, such as perfecting, enduring, and despising. Such words are indicators of historical events—events that are critical for those of us who apply the word Christian to our lives.

Of course the Christian’s legacy continues beyond the biblical record. Our forefathers’ lives still resonate in our lives. A Roman historian wrote this about the early church: “The contagion of this superstition [Christianity] has spread not only in the cities, but in the villages and rural districts as well.”{7} This remarkable analysis provides a stirring picture of our inheritance. Wouldn’t it be marvelous if those who follow us would read that we were equally contagious?

If we were to continue a retrospective of church history, we could consider the lives of people such as Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin. Then we could enter our own era and discuss who we think will leave the strongest legacy. Such thoughts are worthy of contemplation, but there are dangers. That is, we can lose sight of how we are touched by those lives that may never enter a history book. In addition, we may be in danger of belittling how God uses us to impact His kingdom, His history. “One of the obvious features of the experience that fills our lives every day is that we never can know what will flow out of it.”{8} So we may not know the result of our history, but we can know that our lives are important. We are leaving a mark within God’s kingdom. He honors us as His instruments within history.

Notes

1. Carl F.H. Henry, God Who Speaks and Shows, vol. II of God, Revelation and Authority (Waco, TX: Word, 1976), 250.
2. Ibid., 253.
3. Ibid., 281.
4. Ronald H. Nash, Christian Faith and Historical Understanding (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan/Probe, 1984), 153.
5. Ibid., 12.
6. Robert L. Wilken, Remembering the Christian Past (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995), 122.
7. Pliny the Younger, quoted in Bettenson, Documents of the Christian Church, 2nd ed. (London: Oxford, 1970), 4.
8. Daniel J. Boorstin, foreword to The Timetables of History, by Bernard Grun (New York: Simon and Schuster, A Touchstone Book, 1975).

© 1999 Probe Ministries International


Points of Contact

Making Contact

In 1988 at the Republican National Convention, George Bush called for “a thousand points of light” as a part of his campaign for president. His intention was to encourage the involvement of a small but committed number of people who could make a difference. If only a few would answer the call, a thousand points of light emanating from communities large and small would touch the country. The implications of President Bush’s phrase remind me of a phrase designed to instill the same concept in the members of a branch of our military: “The few, the proud, the Marines.”

These ideas are not far removed from a concept that should be descriptive of Christian communities. We should be “points of light” to the surrounding world, even if we are “the few.” After all, Jesus said His disciples are “…the light of the world” (Matt. 5:14). (Of course He did not say we are to be “the proud,” and most of us are not Marines. But I think you get the idea.) Jesus continues with this exhortation: “Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:16). How can we shine the light of Christ in the surrounding world? I submit that one response to this question is this: We can be points of light by establishing points of contact.

You may be thinking, “Just what is meant by a point of contact?” Good question! Let me attempt to explain. For our purposes in this series a “point of contact” contains several points (pardon the pun).

1. Its purpose is to activate conversation that leads to evangelism.

2. It stimulates dialogue.

3. It enables you to make a transition from a non-Christian worldview to a Christian worldview.

4. It serves as a “bridge” to someone who might not otherwise respond to the gospel.

5. It encourages you to meet a person where “he lives” mentally and spiritually.

6. It provides a positive challenge to use your God-given creativity, instead of relying on a “canned” approach.

7. It stretches you to converse with non-believers in ways that can be understood by them. As C. S. Lewis wrote, “I have come to the conviction that if you cannot translate your thoughts into uneducated language, then your thoughts were confused. Power to translate is the test of having really understood one’s own meaning.”{1} Christians tend to have their own “educated language.” We may understand one another. But the non-Christian probably has no idea what we are saying; he is uneducated in our language.{2}

All of these points assume that you are sharing what we will call a “common life” with those around you. What are some of the elements of this common life? You probably share time and space each day with friends, business colleagues, neighbors, sports opponents, people on the train or plane, and a host of other possibilities. But these refer only to the physical portion of your common life. What about such things as the news media, television programming, movies, magazines, sporting events, and many others that are shared, paradoxically, when we may be alone? They too are part of the common life we share, whether Christian or non-Christian. Such things provide points of contact. They can be bridges to the gospel.

Pertinent Points

Have you ever traveled over the Golden Gate Bridge, or maybe the bridge over the Royal Gorge? If so, why were you on such bridges? Usually we assume they have been constructed to transport us from one side of a gap to another. There is a significant gap between you and your destination on the other side. A bridge provides at least one way to get there.

How large is the gap between Christians and non-Christians? Most Christians would reply that the gap is enormous, and in a theological sense they are correct. The Christian worldview is on one side of a chasm, and non-Christian worldviews are on the other. Such a predicament could be left as it is, which is the case for too many Christians. But part of the Christian’s responsibility is to “bridge” that gap with the amazing truth of the gospel. Points of contact can provide the raw materials for the building of such a bridge.

Alister McGrath, a great theologian and apologist of our time, has suggested several such points of contact that are shared by all people. These can be useful as you begin to erect a bridge.{3} As we consider such points, use your imagination and think of ways in which you might engage someone in conversation.

First, most people have a sense of unsatisfied longing. We are made in the image of God. We have an inbuilt capacity–indeed, an inbuilt need–to relate to God. Nothing that is transitory can ever fill this need. Created things are substituted for God, and they do not satisfy.

A major portion of my life includes involvement in the musical world. I have performed a wide assortment of music styles. But in particular, I have developed a great appreciation for what most people call “classical music.”

One of the more intriguing aspects of classical music history of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is a “sense of unsatisfied longing.” For example, Gustav Mahler continually composed in order to come to grips with that longing. One of his close friends, the great conductor Bruno Walter, put it like this: “Fundamentally, there never was relief for him from the sorrowful struggle to fathom the meaning of human existence.”{4} When I hear Mahler’s music, I hear that “sorrowful struggle” and think of how I may have talked with the great composer himself.

Second, most people have a sense of human rationality. This resonance of reason with God is a harmony of rationality, hinting that human nature is still marked with the imago Dei [image of God]. Given the Christian understanding of who God is and what He is like, our knowledge of both our rational selves and the rational world ties in with belief in His rational and creative existence.

C. S. Lewis expressed this point by focusing on the probability of a mind. He wrote, “What is behind the universe is more like a mind than it is like anything else we know. That is to say, it is conscious, and has purposes, and prefers one thing to another. It made the universe, partly for purposes we do not know, but partly, at any rate, in order to produce creatures like itself . . . to the extent of having minds.”{5}

Third, most people have a sense of the ordering of the world. Modern science has demonstrated that the world is ordered. But its disclosure of an intelligible and delicately balanced structure raises questions that transcend the scientific and provide an intellectual restlessness that seeks adequate explanation. Perhaps the most fundamental of these questions can be summarized in a single word: Why?

Think of the newspapers, books, and magazines you read. They consist of ordered arrangements of ink on paper. “Neither the chemistry of the ink nor the shapes of the letters determines the meaning of the text. In short, the message transcends the properties of the medium.”{6} The message requires a messenger.

Fourth, most people have a sense of human morality. Most humans realize the importance of moral obligation or at least they have an awareness of the need for some kind of agreement on morality.{7}

Perhaps this is noticed most easily when sensational crimes are committed, as when Charles Manson murdered Sharon Tate and her friends. Even though the public may not agree on how justice should be carried out, seldom do we hear that the crime was a good thing. Invariably there is a sense of moral outrage and a cry for justice.

Fifth, many people struggle with a sense of existential anxiety and alienation. This reflects a deeply rooted fear of meaninglessness and pointlessness, a sense of the utter futility of life, even sheer despair at the bewildering things that threaten to reduce us to nothing more than a statistic–ultimately a mortality statistic. While it seems trite to talk about “the meaning of life,” it is a question that lingers at the edges (and sometimes squarely in the center) of reflective human existence.{8}

The twentieth century is replete with famous examples of this point. From the philosophical intricacies of people such as Jean-Paul Sartre, to the expletives of punk-rocker Johnny Rotten, many have struggled with anxiety and alienation. Even a German word, angst, has entered our vocabulary as a statement of such states of mind. “Man has a sense of dread (Angst); he is a being thrust into the world and headed for death (nothingness) with no explanation [that] ‘there is something rather than nothing at all.’”{9} Contrary to the openness of those such as Sartre and Rotten, this point of contact is one of the more “quiet” ones, in that it is not openly stated. Anxiety and alienation generally are not easily seen and heard; one has to be sensitive to what lies below the surface.

Sixth, most people have an awareness of finitude and mortality. The fear of death, often voiced in terms of a radical inability to cope with the brute fact of human existence, runs deep in human nature. As the writer/director/actor Woody Allen said, “I’m not frightened of dying. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”

Physical death, perhaps the most universally realized truth, may be the least discussed. It is inevitable, but its mystery so often stirs terror or resignation. Listen to Shakespeare’s Macbeth:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death.
Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.{10}

If you could talk with people like Charles Manson, Johnny Rotten, Woody Allen, or the fictional Macbeth, how would you respond? Would you consider how these points of contact could be used to engage them in conversation? Would you think carefully about how God may use you to get their attention?

Biblical Points of Contact

Mustard seeds, hidden treasure, vineyards, debtors, fig trees, sheep, money. What do such things have in common? You probably recognize such terms from the parables that Jesus used to teach spiritual principles. We could add many more phrases, because the Gospels contain many instances when Jesus used His favorite teaching device as a point of contact with His listeners.

Just what is a parable? Literally, the word means, “to throw alongside.” Parables “…were used by Jesus to teach a truth, illustrate a doctrine, or move His audience to a moral attitude or act.”{11} Apparently they were used spontaneously in light of an immediate situation or conflict, and they focused on what was familiar to the audience.{12} These characteristics are indicative of how Jesus was able to get the kind of attention that opened doors to important truths. When we attempt to find a point of contact, we are following Jesus’ example. We may not use a parable, but we are responding to an immediate situation spontaneously in a way that is familiar to our audience.

So a parable is one device found in the Bible that can be used as a point of contact. When we read the Gospels they are hard to miss. But Jesus used other devices as well.

One example of this is found in the story of His encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well. Both Jesus and the woman initially were at the well for water, but Jesus quickly engaged her in conversation concerning something beyond physical water. His point of contact was the water, but He quickly used that as a “springboard” that drew her focused attention. He said, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, ‘Give Me a drink,’ you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water” (John 4:10). Imagine if you had heard such a response! Don’t you think your interest would have been piqued? This encounter provides an example very different from a parable. Let’s call it a “curiosity contact.” That is, Jesus raised the woman’s curiosity about whom He was and what He had to say. Her life was forever changed as a result.

At this point you may be thinking, “Yes, I see what Jesus did through points of contact. But obviously, I’m not Jesus. I can’t do what He did.” To a point, you are correct. You certainly are not Jesus, but you can follow His example. The book of Acts contains instances of this. Let’s consider two of those.

The eighth chapter of Acts includes Philip’s famous dialogue with an Ethiopian eunuch. The Holy Spirit had led Philip to the eunuch, but it appears that Philip creatively and spontaneously addressed the man. He saw that he was reading, so he asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” (Acts 8:30). What a wonderful point of contact! Philip then was given an opportunity to direct their conversation towards the gospel. Such an encounter reminds me of a question most of us have asked: “What are you reading?” In addition to asking that question, today we may ask, “What are you watching?”

Paul’s defense of the faith at Mars Hill in Athens provides another illustration of selecting a point of contact. The city was filled with thousands of idols. Paul had noticed one such idol that was inscribed, “to an unknown god” (Acts 17:23). An idol became his point of contact! Thus he began to proclaim the truth in response to their admitted ignorance.

What are some of the points of contact in your daily life?

Contemporary Contacts

You are taking a walk around your neighborhood. As you turn a corner a few blocks from your house, you see an old friend whom you have not seen in a couple of years. She is riding a bicycle in your direction. As she gets closer she recognizes you and stops. The two of you strike up a conversation that revolves around the kinds of things that usually are discussed on such occasions: Have you seen Sally lately? Did you hear about Jim’s divorce? How are your children? Then you realize that God’s Spirit is encouraging you to guide the conversation toward Christ. You are thinking of a way to do this when you suddenly notice that she is wearing an especially beautiful necklace with a cross. You comment on her jewelry, then you ask, “What does the cross represent?” She responds by saying it’s just a nice piece of jewelry that was given to her by her daughter. But it has no “religious significance.” You respond to her statement by sharing the true meaning and significance of the cross.

This fictitious story demonstrates how a point of contact can lead to an opportunity to share the gospel. In order to bring this discussion to a conclusion, we will give attention to six ways points of contact can give you an open door for God’s truth.

First, be attentive to your God-given imagination. Of all people, Christians should creatively interact with the world around them for the glory of God. This may mean you will need to practice the habit of “sharpening your focus” on the world around you. Maybe you can begin to see with new eyes and hear with new ears.

Second, be attentive to the things most people have in common. A piece of jewelry was the common element in the illustration that was used to begin this program. Jewelry is something most people have in common. But whether it’s jewelry, clothes, houses, cars, children, sports, or a long list of other things, you can find a point of contact among them.

Third, be attentive to those things that are most important to the person with whom you are sharing. For example, most people think of their immediate family as the most important part of their lives. Points of contact abound when you are sensitive to what is most important in a person’s life.

Fourth, be attentive to the subjects that occupy someone’s conversations. If the person with whom you are conversing talks a great deal about movies, find a point of contact there. If another person is fanatical about sports, find a point of contact there. If a hobby is the center of conversation, find a point of contact there. Such a list virtually is endless.

Fifth, be attentive to areas of greatest immediate need. Some people may dwell on their poor health. Others may concentrate on failures in their lives. Or maybe you will find yourself in conversation with someone who is bitter about something that happened in the past. Again, such a list of possibilities virtually is endless. All of them supply points of contact.

Sixth, and most important, be attentive to what the Spirit of God is telling you. He is not silent; He will bring appropriate things to your attention. Any point of contact will only be effective as the Spirit guides you to respond.

The world around us is starving for contact. People need to hear what God has to say through us. He will guide us to make contact for His glory. We are God’s messengers of hope. I hope we get the point.

 

Notes

1. C. S. Lewis, God in the Dock (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1970), 98.

2. See my article Christian Cliches.

3. Alister McGrath, Intellectuals Don’t Need God & Other Modern Myths (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1993),30-47.

4. Bruno Walter, Gustav Mahler (New York: Vienna House, 1941), 129.

5. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan, 1952), 31-32. Quoted in McGrath, Intellectuals Don’t Need God, 35.

6. Stephen C. Meyer, “The Explanatory Power of Design: DNA and the Origin of Information.” In Mere Creation: Science, Faith & Intelligent Design, ed. William A. Dembski (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1998), 135.

7. I recommend that you read the opening portion of C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity (New York: MacMillan, 1943) for a brilliant exposition of this point. Actually, you should read the entire book; you will benefit from it. It has become a classic.

8. See my article The Meaning of Life.

9. Norman L. Geisler and Paul D. Feinberg, Introduction to Philosophy: A Christian Perspective (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1980), 48.

10. William Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act V, Scene V. In The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Vol. 2, W. G. Clark and W. Aldis Wright, eds. (Garden City: Nelson Doubleday, n.d.), 813.

11. Leland Ryken, The Literature of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1974), 302.

12. Ibid.


© 1999 Probe Ministries International

 

 



Listening

Listening: A Lost Art?

“Listen to me!”
“Don’t you ever listen?”
“Listen up!”
“Are you listening?”
“Listen carefully to what I have to say.”
“Listen and learn.”

Do such phrases sound familiar to you? Maybe you have heard them from your parents, a teacher, a preacher, or maybe you use them with your children or other family members. They are commands or questions that emphasize the importance of listening. We all want to be heard; we believe what we have to say is significant. It is disheartening and humiliating when we are ignored.

Many years ago I witnessed a scene that has been written indelibly in my memory. It was not an event of earth-shaking importance. It was a simple exchange of time and attention between two people. One of those people was a very prominent, world-renowned pastor of one of the largest churches in the world. The other person was a church member who simply was seeking to spend a few minutes in conversation with the pastor. I don’t know what the member wanted to discuss; it didn’t seem to matter to the pastor. The thing that made their conversation so memorable was that many people just like the one with whom he was talking surrounded the pastor. They all wanted a few minutes of his time and attention. But instead of being distracted by many different voices, the pastor gave his full attention to one person at a time. He focused his eyes on each individual and appeared to have a genuine interest in each of them. This scene has proven to be a model for me. I have thought of it many times as I have attempted to give my attention to anyone who seeks to be heard.

On the other hand, we have seen and experienced the opposite of this scene. Too often we are oblivious to the importance of listening. Either the one to whom we are speaking is not listening, or we are not concentrating enough on what someone else has to say to us. Have we lost the art of listening? If so, it is important that we consider how meaningful it can be to be good listeners. Within a Christian worldview, this is an essential art.

The words listen or hear and their cognates are used in the New American Standard Bible over 1,500 times. Obviously this implies that the terms are important for one who takes the Bible seriously. If we are to build a worldview that honors God, we should learn to listen.

To whom or what should we listen? Surely many answers to this question could be suggested. The art of listening is worthy of thorough discussion. But, in this discussion, I will concentrate on four facets of listening. First, we should listen to God. Second, we should listen in order to understand. Third, we should listen to the world around us. And fourth, we should listen to the non- Christian. Each of these will be offered with the hope that the development of good listening skills will lead to good communication of God’s truth. If we are listening carefully, we will in turn have a hearing among those who need the message we can share.

Listening to God

What would your parents, or children, or family, or friends, or coworkers say if they were asked if you listen to them? In most cases, we would like to think that such people deserve to be heard. But if you are a Christian, God should be added to such a list. Surely a Christian wants to listen to God above all others.

A Christian worldview includes the belief that God is a supernatural but personal being who communicates with us. His transcendent character does not mean that He is bound to be isolated from those He loves. That love includes the fact that He has infinite wisdom to share with His loved ones. And the wise person is one who is worthy of that description because he has learned to listen to God’s wisdom.

In addition, the Christian worldview includes the glorious truth that God listens to us. As a book title states, He is The God Who Hears.{1} The creator and sustainer of the universe actually chooses to hear us. The Bible is clear about this. “Idols are deaf (Deut 4:28; Rev 9:20), but God is personified as having ears (1 Sam 8:21) and hearing his people (2 Sam 22:7).”{2}

Such thoughts are part of a common thread among most Christians. But those of us who have been taught the central tenets of biblical content may tend to be too comfortable with such concepts. We may have ignored the startling nature of communication with God. It can be helpful for us to realize that these beliefs are distinguishing marks of both biblical Judaism and Christianity. “Unlike ancient religions that sought revelation through the eye and through visions, biblical people primarily sought revelation through the ear and hearing. Hearing symbolizes the proper response to God in the Bible.”{3} From the central proclamation of Judaism, “Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one!” (Deut. 6:4), to the familiar declaration of the Lord Jesus, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear” (Matt. 11:15), the Bible affirms the importance of listening to the God of the Bible.

At this point we should stop and consider at least one segment of what is entailed in listening to God. That is, we are to listen to God through His Word, the Bible. “Just as human beings address God by means of language through prayer, God addresses human beings by means of language in the pages of Scripture.”{4} Before we succumb to the temptation of letting such truths pass by us, consider the dynamic implication of God addressing us in the pages of Scripture. The apostle Paul refers to this in 1 Corinthians 2:12-13:

Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might know the things freely given to us by God, which things we also speak, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, combining spiritual thoughts with spiritual words.

Obviously Paul believed that what He wrote was from God through the Holy Spirit. Paul was listening to God in such a way that “we might know the things freely given to us by God.” Thus, when the Christian reads or hears the Bible, he is listening to God.

Listening In Order to Understand

Have you ever had a frustrating conversation? That’s a ridiculous question, right? You can probably bring many such conversations to mind! You just were not able to “get through” to the person, or the opposite was true. Maybe one of the two of you was listening, but you just did not understand one another.

As Christians, such frustration may be the result of not cultivating the art of listening. This begins with listening to God. If we have learned to hear God through His Word, we have come to realize important elements of listening in order to understand. If we can listen to God, we are able to listen to our fellow men.

First, we realize that understanding is often the result of focus. Whether we are studying the Bible, praying, hearing a sermon, listening to family or friends, viewing a movie, or a list of other things, our attention needs to be focused. Admittedly, this can be difficult to achieve. Distractions seem to flood our lives at the most inopportune times. But how often are such distractions a result of unnecessary additions to our lives? Have we put rugged mountains in our paths? Do we find ourselves struggling to climb those mountains before we can focus on what we truly are seeking on the other side? Perhaps we are in need of a refocusing on what is truly important, along with the discarding of what is not truly important. When this happens we will begin to walk a path that will provide more opportunities to listen in order to understand. I believe our relationships with God and those we love will deepen as a result.

The second element of understanding is patient contemplation. Some may call this meditation, which is a thoroughly biblical practice when we are meditating on Scripture. But whether we are contemplating Scripture, or what our children may have just said, our objective is to understand. Again, this also can be difficult to achieve. Because of the ways in which pop culture has permeated our lives, we have grown accustomed to immediate gratification.{5} This isn’t surprising in light of the fact that most of what fills our ears and eyes doesn’t require much, if any, patient contemplation. In fact, the things we tend to hear and see would be considered failures if we didn’t respond immediately. Such pressures are indicative of the struggles of Christians in the world. According to Scripture, this will be true until Jesus returns. As a result, the Christian community is in need of those who are willing to do the hard work of patient contemplation. There is too much at stake to do otherwise.

The third element of listening in order to understand concerns the application of what is heard. When we have listened carefully enough to focus and contemplate we then are ready to use what has been heard. This is a crucial element of a Christian worldview, because in the New Testament “. . . the only marks to distinguish true hearing from purely physical hearing are faith (Matt. 8:10; 9:2; 17:20 etc.) and action (Matt. 7:16, 24, 26; Rom. 2:13 etc.).”{6} As Jesus said, “. . . everyone who hears these words of Mine, and acts upon them, may be compared to a wise man, who built his house upon the rock” (Matt. 7:24). Let’s aspire to be considered among the wise. God will be glorified because He will have something to say through us.

Listening to the World Around Us

You are sitting in your doctor’s office waiting to see him about a persistent cough you have had for more than two weeks. As you are thumbing through a magazine you are suddenly startled by an advertisement that proclaims, in very large letters: “YOU ARE THE C.E.O. OF YOUR LIFE!” Then you begin to read the fine print at the bottom of the ad, which states: “Think about it. Your life is like a business. It makes sense that you’re the one in charge.” You are thinking about it, and you do not agree. Why? Because you have been “listening” to the world around you and you realize that your world view does not fit with what you consider to be a brazen claim. You are not the C.E.O. of your life; God is. Your mental and spiritual sensitivity meter is working properly.

This fictitious scenario illustrates one of the common ways our Christian worldview guides us as we “listen” to the world around us. Many ideas are being shared in that world and many of them are contrary to Christian thought. Stephen Eyre refers to those ideas as “dragons.” He believes these are cultural values that “. . . are particularly strong and absolutely deadly for the church.”{7} Eyre identifies six of them.

The first dragon is Materialism. Matter is all that matters; “I am what I own.” Jesus said, “. . . do not be anxious for your life, as to what you shall eat, or what you shall drink; nor for your body, as to what you shall put on. Is not life more than food, and the body than clothing?” (Matt. 6:25)

The second dragon is Activism. Life is to be filled with action; “I am what I do,” or “I am what I produce.” God said, “Cease striving and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth” (Ps. 46:10).

The third dragon is Individualism. We can depend on no one but ourselves; “I am self-sufficient.” The apostle Peter wrote these memorable words to people, not just an individual: “. . . you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession . . .” (1 Pet. 2:9).

The fourth dragon is Conformism. Recognition by others is a necessity; “I am who others recognize me to be.” Jesus warned His disciples: “Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 6:1).

The fifth dragon is Relativism. It doesn’t matter what you believe, as long as you believe something; “I am whatever I choose to believe.” Jesus declared that what we believe about Him is what ultimately matters when He said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me” (John 14:6).

The sixth dragon is Secularism. Religion is all right in its place; “I am sufficient without God.” Jesus said we are not sufficient unless we have Him: “I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me, and I in him, he bears much fruit; for apart from Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).

Are we listening to the dragons, or to the Word of God? May the Lord guide us as we listen to the world around us with His ears.

Listening to the Non-Christian

My ministry experiences include the privilege of travelling to the beautiful country of Slovenia. While in this formerly communist state I was invited to speak to older high school students in their classes. (Yes, they spoke and understood English very well.) After one of these classes I engaged in conversation with several young people who were especially curious about the issues I had raised about the subject of worldviews. As I listened closely to what they were saying I realized they might have been using certain terms without much knowledge of what they mean. One of those terms was the word atheist. Some of them claimed they were atheists. So I gently asked if they understood the implications of the word by using an illustration that got their attention. Then I asked if they knew of the word agnostic. After they indicated they had not heard of the word I explained it to them. Immediately they responded by asserting that the word agnostic described them more accurately than atheist. From that point in our conversation I was able to share the gospel, the answer to their agnosticism.

As you can imagine, that incident is a joyous memory in my life. But what if I had not listened carefully, not only to what the students were saying, but what they did not say? I believe that if I had not focused my attention in order to contemplate their comments and questions, I would not have had their attention as I did.

When we are listening carefully to the non-Christian we are winning an opportunity to be heard by him. There are times when evangelism can be a matter of listening, and then telling. Here are two suggestions that can help in developing the art of listening to the non-Christian.

First, listen for what the person presupposes is true. For example, the actor Brad Pitt is quoted as saying, “I have a hard time with morals. All I know is what feels right. What’s more important to me is being honest about who you are.”{8} If you were listening to him say these things you may have wanted to encourage him to consider the implications of his statements. How would he react if someone “felt like” stealing his car or robbing his house? You also could ask him if Charles Manson was being honest about himself when he committed murder. Brad Pitt’s presuppositions about morality cannot be sustained. He needs something greater than his feelings and a vague sense of honesty.

Second, listen for what is not said. You may hear a lot of assertions, but what are the crucial elements you do not hear? Imagine you are listening to a non-Christian friend as he has a tirade about the hypocrisy of the Christians he knows (you excepted, of course). It suddenly occurs to you to ask what is behind his anger. He then becomes increasingly agitated as he tells you someone in a church rejected him and defamed his family when he was younger. Now you can begin to build up what had been torn down in your friend’s life, even though a lot of patience may be required.

People need to be heard. May God grant us the wisdom to listen. In the process may He grant us the privilege of carrying His wondrous message to those who will hear.

Notes

1. W. Bingham Hunter, The God Who Hears (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1986).

2. Leland Ryken, James C. Wilhoit, Tremper Longman III, gen. eds., “Ear, Hearing,” in Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1998).

3. Ibid.

4. Gene Edward Veith, Jr., Reading Between the Lines (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1990), 18.

5. See my essays on the subjects of Television and Slogans.

6. Gerhard Kittel, akouw, in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. I, ed. Gerhard Kittel, trans. and ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964), 220.

7. Stephen D. Eyre, Defeating the Dragons of the World (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1987), 14. Much of the material in this section comes from this book.

8. Brad Pitt, quoted in Ladies Home Journal (March 1999), 46.

 

©1999 Probe Ministries


Christians and Culture

What Should We Do with This Thing Called Culture?

What do you think of when you hear the word culture? Perhaps you refer to the arts. You may picture the way people dress, the way they eat, their language, their religion, their architecture, or a host of other perceptions. One of the most succinct definitions of culture is wide-ranging because it refers to “that which man does beyond biological necessity.”{1} Obviously such a definition indicates the importance of the term. Our lives are lived within culture. There is no escaping this thing called culture. But how is a Christian to respond?

Church history demonstrates that one of the constant struggles of Christianity, both individually and corporately, is with culture. Paul, for example, wrote two letters to Christians who lived in Corinth, a very challenging culture. Where should we stand? Inside? Outside? Ignore it? Become isolated from it? Should we concern ourselves with attempting to transform it?

In 1949 a theologian named Richard Niebuhr delivered a series of lectures entitled Christ and Culture.{2} Subsequently his thoughts were published and the book has become a classic. Niebuhr’s text focuses on five paradigms that describe how Christians have dealt with culture. A brief survey of these paradigms can help us see ourselves, and perhaps challenge us to consider changing the way we look at the world around us.

The first paradigm, Christ against Culture, describes those who choose to isolate themselves from the surrounding culture. A descriptive contemporary phrase might be “the holy huddle” of Christians who dialog among themselves, but no one else. Second, the Christ of Culture perspective is exactly the opposite of Christ against Culture because it attempts to bring culture and Christianity together, regardless of their differences. Third, the Christ above Culture position attempts to synthesize the issues of the culture with the answer of Christian revelation. Fourth, Christ and Culture in Paradox refers to those who understand the tension between the Christian’s responsibility to both the cultural and the spiritual realms. Fifth, Christ the Transformer of Culture describes those who strive “to convert the values and goals of secular culture into the service of the kingdom of God.”{3}

Which of these paradigms describes your relationship with the culture in which you live? Or perhaps you have another paradigm to offer. No doubt we could engage in debate about the merits and demerits of all of them. But since we cannot do that at the moment, let us agree that we should at least give attention to our place in culture.

Christians are to observe and analyze culture and make decisions regarding our proper actions and reactions within it. A struggle is in progress and the stakes are high. But in order to struggle meaningfully and with some hope of influencing our culture, we must be thoughtful and informed.

Our work through Probe Ministries is dedicated to the proposition that the Lord can use Christians as salt and light. God has called us to offer a voice in both the Christian and the non- Christian communities. Among other things, this means that we have attempted to give attention to how this can be done for the glory of God. In particular, our involvement in the non-Christian community presents a special challenge. Much prayer and study have been focused on principles that should be considered before we engage with the culture. In this article, I will focus on five of these principles that apply to ministry within the culture.

Establishing Biblical Precepts

Unless you live in a cave, you have had to deal with the culture around you. You have sensed the need to give thought to how you might glorify God as you react to your culture. Or you may have experienced times of mental and spiritual trauma as you realized the sinful nature of what you experience around you. If you choose to interact with your culture, there are certain principles to be considered.

The first of these is the need for biblical precepts. That is, our minds should be filled with God’s ideas before interacting with the culture. This is an understandable and universally stated declaration among evangelical Christians. Experience tells us we need to give life to the declaration. Are we responding to our culture based on biblical precepts, or are we responding to our culture based on other sources? Are we utilizing a Christian world view as we respond to culture, or are we unwittingly utilizing a naturalistic worldview? When we discuss things as Christians, do we focus on Scripture no matter what we might be discussing? “Contemporary Christianity is all too frequently shaped by the fact that when we meet we do so in an atmosphere resembling that of a committee or caucus, where the style is political and tactical, hardly scholarly, and almost never devotional or genuinely spiritual.”{4} Do we give serious attention “to the sacred text as the firm and only basis on which life and decisions should be based?”{5} Indeed, without the “sacred text” evangelicals are left to grapple with their culture in much the same manner as those who do not claim allegiance to that text.

In order to affirm the primacy of Scripture in a cultural critique the Christian should first read his culture in the light of the Bible. Proper recognition of the culture is necessary before it can be addressed properly. In other words, we need a biblical “lens” through which we can see the culture. The light of God’s Word needs to be focused on the questions at hand. For example, the culture tends to secularize life. Most of us live, work, and play in the secular sphere. But secularism refers to a way of life that “excludes all considerations drawn from a belief in God or in a future state.”{6}

Harry Blamires, a protégé of C.S. Lewis and an astute cultural critic, offers an insightful critique of secularism. The secularist’s position can be defined only in negatives. There is no life except this life in time. There is no order of being except that which we explore with our senses and our instruments. There is no condition of well-being except that of a healthy and comfortable life in time. There is no God to be worshipped, for no God created us. There is no God to propitiate, for there is no God to offend. There is no reward to be sought and no punishment to be avoided except those which derive from earthly authority. There is no law to be obeyed except those which earthly authority imposes or earthly prudence recommends.{7}

Obviously, Blamires’ observations are the result of seeing secularism with a scriptural lens. Biblical precepts allow him to offer such a critique. His example can be an encouragement for us. May God guide us as we apply biblical precepts to evaluate our culture.

Rejecting Cultural Biases, Developing Interaction

What do you think of the culture in which you live? In particular, what do you think of the broader American culture in which your sub-culture is found? For example, are you comfortable with the adage: “America: love it or leave it?” Or do you tend to think of certain other cultures as pristine, even if you have never visited them?

I have discussed the need to assess culture through the use of biblical precepts, the first principle of cultural evaluation. The second principle is focused on what I call cultural bias. If we are to interact with cultures other than our own, and if we seek honestly to evaluate our own, we must be cautious of biases.

Carl F.H. Henry, a great theologian, apologist, and cultural critic has enumerated what he calls twenty fantasies of a secular society. One of these includes the thought that God “will protect the United States and its people from catastrophic disaster because of our commitment to freedom, generosity, and goodness.” Dr. Henry writes, “For many, God is an ever-living George Washington who serves invisibly as the father of our country. This vague political theology assumes that America can never drift irrecoverably beyond divine approval, and that the nation is intrinsically exempt from severe and final divine judgment.” Another fantasy is “that the American people are essentially good at heart in a world whose inhabitants are more prone to evil.”{8} The anthropologist Charles Kraft responds to such thinking by writing that “much of the Christian populace has simply continued to assume that such features of our society as monogamy, democracy, our type of educational system, individualism, capitalism, the ‘freedoms,’ literacy, technological development, military supremacy, etc. are all products of our association with God and therefore can be pointed to as indications of the superiority of our culture over all other cultures.”{9}

Missionaries who serve in cultures other than their own can speak to the danger of such fantasies. But we do not have to be foreign missionaries to experience the effects of cultural bias. The United States has become such a multicultural environment that Christians can and must understand the importance of rejecting cultural biases.

Interaction but not Accommodation

The third principle of cultural evaluation focuses on the need for interaction with culture, but not accommodation. There should be no fear in this if we are using biblical precepts, the first of our principles. But we need to be alert to the ways in which we can become enmeshed in the culture. In addition, we should be accountable to one another by offering warnings when we observe such entanglement.

Without cultural interaction evangelicals leave numerous important facets of contemporary cultural life without the light of truth they can offer. A cursory reading of post-Enlightenment history will demonstrate the progressive decrease of evangelical interaction and the subsequent lack of influence in strategic areas of culture. For example, American higher education has been guided by principles that leave Christian theism out of the picture.

It is crucial, though, that such interaction take place with a sense of accountability. The person who enters the culture without respect for the ideological dangers that reside there will prove to be foolish. The ideas, the sense of progress, and the pride of cultural accomplishment can lead us to give credit to man instead of God. May the Lord receive praise as He uses us to touch our culture!

A Positive Revolutionary Vision

The word revolution tends to have a negative connotation for most of us. A revolutionary most often is seen as someone who engenders rebellion and chaos. But a Christian’s response to culture should include a positive revolutionary mindset. Christian thought and life should state things to culture that exhibit Christ’s revolutionary vision for all people. A type of pluralism that tempts us to negate Christianity’s claims and absolutes should not persuade Christians. Donald Bloesch speaks to this tension by juxtaposing what he calls prophetic religion and culture religion. He writes: “Our choice today is between a prophetic religion and a culture religion. The first is anchored in a holy God who infinitely transcends every cultural and religious form that testifies to Him. The second absolutizes the cultural or mythical garb in which God supposedly meets us.”{10} Our interaction with culture must have a prophetic voice. We must speak boldly to the culture knowing that the source of our proclamation is the sovereign God.

This means that Christians should not relegate their lives to what may be called a “Christian ghetto” or “holy huddle.” Too many Christians live “a split life: they are forced to use many words and images that have a private meaning for them with which they are unable or unwilling to enrich the fund of public experience.”{11} One may have a revolutionary vision and prophetic zeal, but too often it is directed toward his “ghetto” instead of the surrounding culture. To quote an old cliché: “He is preaching to the choir.”

Notice how often conversations among Christians concentrate on problems presented by the surrounding culture. For example, discussion may focus on the latest outrage in the entertainment industry, or the newest bit of intrigue in Washington, or concerns about the sex education emphased in public schools, or controversies surrounding issues of abortion, euthanasia, cloning, homosexuality, child abuse, or a host of other topics. Then notice if constructive suggestions are offered. Is attention given to the ways in which the Christian community might respond to such issues based on biblical precepts? Too often such a scenario does not include positive revolutionary cultural interaction.

Lesslie Newbigin, a perceptive cultural critic, offers two propositions regarding a Christian’s revolutionary vision. First, Newbigin states he would not see Christians just “in that corner of the private sector which our culture labels ‘religion’, but rather in the public sector where God’s will as declared in Jesus Christ is either done or not done in the daily business of nations and societies, in the councils of governments, the boardrooms of transnational corporations, the trade unions, the universities, and the schools.” Second, “I would place the recovery of that apocalyptic strand of the New Testament teaching without which Christian hope becomes merely hope for the survival of the individual and there is no hope for the world.”{12} Christianity is not to be privatized; it applies to all people in all places at all times.

If we choose to take Newbigin’s propositions seriously, we must not be naïve about the response we will receive. At this moment in American history the public sector often is antagonistic toward a Christian voice. Thus we should not be surprised when we are rejected. Instead, if we are stating God’s ideas we should rejoice, as did the early Christians when they suffered for His name (Acts 5:41). When truth rubs shoulders with untruth, friction is the result.

Glorifying God in All of Life

The words whatever and all are enormous. Can you think of something more than whatever or all? When the apostle Paul wrote his first letter to the church in Corinth he used these terms to describe how they should glorify God in their lives: “Whether, then, you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (I Cor. 10:31). Pagan Corinth certainly provided many opportunities for early Christians to learn how to respond to their culture. The same is true for Christians in our time. We live in and associate with a culture that constantly presents challenges. We are to glorify God in all we do, regardless of those challenges. “Where God is acknowledged as the Creator, man knows that the ultimate meaning of His creatures is the same as the meaning of all life: the glory of God and the service of men.”{13} Our work within culture and our influence on it are part of what God will judge. Therefore, these works are important.

We are to remind ourselves and tell the culture that “the prophetic church witnesses to the breaking into history of a higher righteousness; it points people to a higher law.”{14} Carl F.H. Henry emphasizes this in a passage concerning education, but the implications cover much more:

The drift of twentieth century learning can be succinctly summarized in one statement: Instead of recognizing [God] as the source and stipulator of truth and the good, contemporary thought reduces all reality to impersonal processes and events, and insists that man himself creatively imposes upon the cosmos and upon history the only values that they will ever bear.{15}

God is sovereign; He is the Lord of whatever and all in all of life.

Thus we must be cautious about our emphases within culture. God changes things; we are His messengers. Our involvement is important, but it must be remembered that it is transitory. As beautiful and meaningful as the works of man may be, they will not last. The theologian Karl Barth emphasized this by relating his comments to the tower of Babel: “In the building of the tower of Babel whose top is to touch heaven, the Church can have no part. The hope of the Church rests on God for men; it does not rest on men, not even on religious men—and not even on the belief that men with the help of God will finally build that tower.”{16} Our hope is not found in man’s efforts. Our hope is found in God’s provision for eternity. But this does not denigrate our involvement with culture. “There is a radical difference between human culture generally, which is thoroughly secular, and that which is developed as a loving service to God.”{17} Utopia will never refer to this life. Since no culture “this side of the Parousia [Second Coming] can be recognized as divine we are limited to the more modest hope that life on earth may gradually be made better; or, more modestly still, gradually be made less bad.”{18} Christian’s response to culture should be described with such modest hopes in view.

This article has focused on five principles that can strengthen a Christian impact on culture. Fill your mind with biblical precepts; be careful that you do not respond to the surrounding culture with cultural biases; be interactive, but not accommodating; develop a positive revolutionary mindset; and glorify God in all of life.

Notes
1. Emil Brunner, Christianity and Civilization (London: Nisbet, 1948), 142.
2. H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (New York: Harper & Row, 1951).
3. Donald G. Bloesch, Freedom for Obedience (San Francisco: Harpter & Row, 1987), 227.
4. Charles E. Kinzie, “The Absorbed Church: Our Inheritance of Conformed Christianity,” Sojourners 7 (July, 1978), 22.
5. Ibid.
6. Harry Blamires, The Christian Mind (Ann Arbor, MI: Servant, 1963), 58.
7. Harry Blamires, Recovering the Christian Mind (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1988), 59-60.
8. Carl F.H. Henry, Christian Countermoves In A Decadent Culture (Portland, OR: Multnomah, 1986), 32.
9. Charles H. Kraft, “Can Anthropological Insight Assist Evangelical Theology?” The Christian Scholar’s Review 7 (1977), 182.
10. Bloesch, Freedom for Obedience, 244
11. Julius Lipner, “Being One, Let Me Be Many: Facets of the Relationship Between the Gospel and Culture,” International Review of Missions 74 (April, 1985), 162.
12. Lesslie Newbigin, “Can the West be Converted?” Evangelical Review of Theology 11 (October, 1987), 366.
13. Emil Brunner, Christianity and Civilization (London: Nisbet & Co., 1948), 157.
14. Donald Bloesch, “The Legacy of Karl Barth,” TSF Bulletin 9 (May-June 1986), 8
15. Carl F.H. Henry, “The Crisis of Modern Learning,” Faculty Dialogue 10 (Winter 1988), 7
16. Karl Barth, Theology and Church, trans. Louise Pettibone Smith (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), 349.
17. Joseph A. Hill, “Human Culture in Biblical Perspective,” Presbyterian Journal, 18 February 1981, 9.
18. Stephen Mayor, “Jesus Christ and the Christian Understanding of Society,” Scottish Journal of Theology 32 (1979), 59-60.

© 1998 Probe Ministries International


The Games We Play

Game-playing and competition can and should be seen as a healthy part of a life that seeks to glorify God in all things.

Games and a Christian Worldview

Ten seconds are left in the game. The Wolves lead by two points. The Bobcats cross midcourt, knowing they must score or they will miss the playoffs. Smith stumbles! Jones grabs the ball and races toward the Wolves’ basket for a lay-up. Smith tackles him like a linebacker! Both of them slide across the floor and run into the wall behind the basket. It looks as if Jones may be injured! Players from both teams are shouting at each other. The referee has thrown Smith out of the game!

Does this sound like something you may have seen during a high school, college, or professional basketball game? Or perhaps you have read about a similar incident. Actually, such an event took place in my experience. (The names have been changed to protect the guilty.) I was playing for my church team in a church league. I was the one who was tackled.

Does such an incident represent a Christian worldview of games? Surely most of us would answer with an emphatic, “No!” Unfortunately, though, too many Christians approach games with attitudes that appear to leave their Christian convictions out of the picture. Too many of us can tell stories involving Christians and games that don’t align with a Christian worldview. Many times I was the one who allowed athletic intensity to overcome moral conviction in the midst of competition, and I have seen many friends do the same. Why? What is it about games that can encourage some of our more ungodly characteristics?

On the other hand, can sports bring out some of our more godly characteristics? Can God be glorified through games? There have been times in my life when the exhilaration and concentration that can accompany games have included thankfulness to God. He gives me joy when I express my thankfulness to Him as I hit or throw a baseball, catch a football, shoot a basketball, volley a tennis ball, or hit a golf ball.

Arthur Holmes has written that “play is all-pervasive. It does not lie just on the fringes of life, as if games were spare parts we don’t really need in the main business of the day.”(1) If true, such a statement indicates the importance of our subject. It is worthy of our attention. Some even believe play is the defining characteristic of humans. “Nietzsche went so far as to reduce all of life and thought to masks in a play, taking nothing seriously except the will to power–in effect, the will to win– that all of life is a biologically driven power play.”(2) A Christian, of course, does not agree with this perspective, but the Christian does live in a world that tends to agree with Nietzsche’s dictum. The “will to power” definitely is translated into “the will to win” for many. Indeed, the phrase is often elaborated to mean “the will to win at all costs.” Vince Lombardi, the coach of the Green Bay Packers during their period of NFL domination, is famous for the statement: “Winning isn’t the main thing, it’s the only thing.” But, can the Christian play, win or lose, and not agree that winning is the only thing? If the answer is, “Yes!,” the believer must realize that he has accepted a challenge to be Christ’s ambassador even on the field of play.

A Brief History of Games

“That was an Olympian effort!” “Those mountains have an Olympic grandeur.” Such expressions indicate some of the ways in which ancient games and their impact are part of our consciousness. Games were part of all ancient cultures. For some, games were more sedentary than for others, but a sense of play permeates man’s history. The Greeks, who first held the Olympic Games and others that were similar, organized these events approximately 3,500 years ago. All of them were dedicated to certain gods and were integrated with religious ceremonies. The competitors were originally amateurs whose only reward was a wreath or garland. Eventually, though, the rigorous training that was required led to their professional status. They received adulation in their cities, as well as substantial prizes and monetary rewards.(3) As we will see, the New Testament contains metaphors relating to these games and competitors.

When the Romans became the dominant world power, they rejected the Greek emphasis on athletic skill because of the public nakedness of the competitors.(4) Such a response is ironic in light of the brutal games that soon came into vogue in the empire. Gladiatorial combat to the death, fights with beasts, even naval battles were staged in the arenas. The circus Maximus in Rome, where important chariot races were held, probably held up to 250,000 people. “By A.D. 354 the games claimed 175 days out of the year.”(5) Such popularity is indicative of a significant difference between the Greek and Roman attitudes about games. “The Greeks originally organized their games for the competitors, the Romans for the public. One was primarily competition, the other entertainment.”(6) The Roman thirst for barbaric spectacle and entertainment ultimately prompted the outrage of early church leaders. They “denounced the games and similar amusements because of idolatry, immodesty, and brutality. It was, in fact, the opposition of Christianity that brought them to an end.”(7) Such a response may prove to be appropriate in our time. But for the moment I propose we simply consider what Scripture contains to guide us in an appraisal of the games played by both Christians and non- Christians.

The Old Testament contains few references to games, even though evidence of them can be found in all areas of the ancient Near East. “Simple and natural amusements and exercises, and trials of wit and wisdom, were more to the Hebrew taste.”(8) The biblical text does mention children’s games, sports such as running, archery, stone-lifting, high leaping, games of chance and skill, story-telling, dancing, the telling of proverbs, and riddles. In addition, wrestling probably was part of Hebrew life.(10)

It is of special interest to note the joyous prophetic picture of Zechariah 8:5: “And the streets of the city will be filled with boys and girls playing in its streets” (NASB). “The promise of the kingdom, as Lewis Smedes observes, is of restored playfulness.” Evidently play and games have a place in God’s plan for His people:

Scripture begins with life in a garden and ends with a city at play; so play–art and celebration and fun and games, and a playful spirit–is part of our calling, part of the creation mandate. It is not the play of self-indulgence, nor of shed responsibility, but of gladness and celebration in responsible relationship to God.”(11)

Games and the New Testament

Can you picture the Apostle Paul as a sportswriter? Imagine him sitting in a stadium pressbox observing the athletes compete. Then imagine him writing his observations and opinions of what transpired. The next morning you purchase a newspaper and turn to the sports section. There you find an account of the previous day’s game under Paul’s byline. Does this sound farfetched, out of character, ludicrous? Actually such a scenario is not far removed from Paul’s knowledge of the games of his day. In several portions of his letters, one can find metaphors relating to athletic preparation and competition. The same is true for the writer of Hebrews. These New Testament writers evidently were aware of Greek and Roman games and realized they could be used to teach valuable lessons to their readers. Their awareness is evidence that they were enmeshed in the surrounding culture, which was filled with indicators of the importance of games and competition in the ancient world.

These games “were so well known in Palestine and throughout the Roman Empire in the time of Christ and the apostles that they cannot be passed over in silence.”(13) Archaeological remains indicate stadiums of various types in many cities including Jerusalem, Jericho, Caesarea, Ephesus, Corinth, Rome, and Tarsus, the city of Paul’s early life. “The early Christians, therefore, whether of Jewish or gentile origin, were able to understand, and the latter at any rate to appreciate, references either to the games in general, or to details of their celebration.”(14) A brief survey of particular New Testament passages will provide us with a foundation for an analysis of games in contemporary life.

Some of the most intriguing athletic metaphors in all of Paul’s writings are found in 1 Corinthians 9:24-27. He uses Greek terminology and images that stem directly from the athletic contests of his day, especially the triennial Isthmian Games held in Corinth. These terms and images include running a race to win, receiving a prize, competition, discipline in preparation for competition, concentration, abiding by the rules, and even boxing. Variations on these themes can be found in Galatians 2:2 and 5:7; Philippians 2:16 and 3:14; 2 Timothy 2:5 and 4:7. In Hebrews 12:1 the author of Hebrews echoes Paul’s metaphors by encouraging Christians to “run with endurance the race that is set before us.” In verse 2 he even refers to Jesus as the one who set the pace and has already covered the course.

These passages are worthy of many sermons and extensive commentary. Since that is not possible in this short essay, let’s consider a few insights from these biblical metaphors that are most germane to our subject.

First, there is no blanket condemnation of games. The metaphors carry the positive weight of someone who respected athletic endeavors. Second, there is much to learn about the Christian life when we compare it with games. Games can be seen and experienced in ways that correlate with Christian principles such as discipline, concentration, and perseverance. Third, these passages should not be gleaned in an uncritical manner. Surely Paul rejected many aspects of the games, such as the pagan religious emphases. Fourth, the physical body was not rejected as unimportant. Gnosticism, which was a prominent heresy of New Testament times, taught that the body was unimportant or even sinful. In contrast, these verses take the importance of the body for granted. It is God’s creation.

Contemporary Views of Games

The Super Bowl. The Final Four. College Bowl Games. The Olympics. The NBA Finals. The World Series. Little League Baseball. The Masters. The World Cup. The list of such sports-related titles could fill several pages of this essay because our culture is saturated with games. This infatuation takes a great deal of our time, attention, and money. An objective observer, in my opinion, would conclude that humans are obsessed with games. Current predictions and opinions of this infatuation vary from the skeptical to the optimistic. Alvin Toffler, writing in 1970, predicted that, “Leisure-time pursuits will become an increasingly important basis for differences between people, as the society shifts from a work orientation toward greater involvement in leisure. We shall advance into an era of breathtaking fun specialism.”(15) Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the great basketball player of the recent past, stated, “Modern sports is getting to be like professional wrestling; something is going awry.”(16) According to Robert Higgs, author of God in the Stadium, “Professional sports is getting warped, and they carry a somber message to society in our contemporary times.”(17) He continued along this theme by suggesting that “the idea of play and fun and enjoyment of the natural gifts of games is being warped by this incredible drive for money.”(18) In comparing the games with a prize, such as the Super Bowl, Higgs concluded:”The more emphasis you put on the cultural prize, the bigger you make those prizes, the less regard and appreciation of the gift of the game itself, it seems to me.” (19)

Do any of these opinions concur with your estimation of games? Are you one of the skeptics? If so, that probably is a sign that you have at least begun to ask if games are occupying the proper place in your life, your family’s life, and the life of the culture at large. Before we become too cynical, though, let’s consider more optimistic analyses.

In his book, The Culture of Narcissism, Christopher Lasch draws a fascinating parallel between sports and our need for traditions and order. He believes that an intelligent sports spectator is one of the keys to a retention of the positive nature of games. He writes: “One of the virtues of contemporary sports lies in their resistance to the erosion of standards and their capacity to appeal to a knowledgeable audience.”(20) Michael Novak, who has written a thought-provoking book entitled The Joy of Sports, juxtaposes European and American traditions around the place of sports in America’s history. He believes that the “streets of America, unlike the streets of Europe, do not involve us in stories and anecdotes rich with a thousand years of human struggle. Sports are our chief civilizing agent. Sports are our most universal art form. Sports tutor us in the basic lived experiences of the humanist tradition.”(21) Novak continues his praise with a statement that echoes the Apostle Paul: “Play provides the fundamental metaphors and the paradigmatic experiences for understanding the other elements of life.”(22) Is there a “happy medium” between the skeptical and optimistic views of games? Or should we bring the two views together in order to find a wise perspective? Perhaps a coupling of the two views provides creative positive tension that enables us to better evaluate the place of games in the Christian life.

Christians in a Competitive World

“I believe that God made me for a purpose. For China. But He also made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure. To give it up would be to hold Him in contempt. . . . To win is to honor Him.”(23)

These poignant phrases are from Chariots of Fire, one of the truly great films. They were spoken by the actor who portrayed Eric Liddell, a great athlete and a great Christian. He is talking with his sister, who is pleading with him to fulfill his commitment to their mission in China. He was to fulfill that commitment, but first he considered it his duty to run in the 1924 Paris Olympics for the glory of God. When I first saw the film I wept with joy and gratitude because of the film’s portrayal of a man who understood and appreciated God’s gift to him. In my estimation the film, and this scene in particular, contains a clear and eloquent statement of a Christian worldview as it applies to games, play, sports, or athletics. With Eric Liddell’s words in mind, we will offer principles that can help us establish a foundation for a Christian’s involvement in games. First, “play is best seen as an attitude, a state of mind rather than as a distinguishable set of activities.”(24) One doesn’t have to be involved in play to play; work can include an attitude of play as well.

Second, “play is not the key to being human, but being human is the key to play.”(25) And being human includes a free spirit that is “celebrative and imaginative because of the possibilities God has for us in this world.”(26)

Third, play should instill “an attitude that carries over into all of life, finding joyful expression in whatever we do, productive or not.”(27)

Fourth, play should be seen as an act of worship. “It is the religious meaning of life that gives purpose and meaning to both work and play. A responsible relationship to God includes play.”(28)

Some of you may be saying, “OK, I can think on these things in solitude or in group discussion, but what about principles that will help me when I’m actually involved in games? How should I play?” Application on the field is a challenge for many of us. Even Albert Camus, the existentialist writer, said that sports provided him with his “only lessons in ethics.”(29) Thomas Aquinas “expressed three cautions that we would do well to observe nowadays. First, do not take pleasure in indecent or injurious play.” Think of a sold-out football stadium of people screaming their approval as an opponent lies immobile on the field. Such a reaction surely does not align with a Christian attitude toward games. “Second, do not lose your mental or emotional balance and self-control.” This may be one of the most challenging cautions. When we lose self-control during games, we are damaging what we say outside of games about our relationship with Christ. “Third, do not play in ways ill-fitting either the hour or the person.”(30) When we play and how we honor God in the process speak loudly about the place of games in our lives. So when we hear “Play ball!” or “Let the games begin!” or “Take your mark!,” let us remember, whether as participants or spectators, that God can honor our games, but He requires a playful attitude that honors Him.

Notes

1. Arthur Holmes, Contours of a worldview (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1983), 226.

2. Ibid.

3. Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th ed., s.v. “Athletic Games and Contests.”

4. Ibid.

5. Wycliffe Bible Encyclopaedia, s.v. “Games.”

6. Encyclopaedia Britannica.

7. Wycliffe Bible Encyclopaedia.

8. The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia, s.v. “Games.”

9. Ibid.

10. The New Bible Dictionary, s.v. “Games.”

11. Lewis Smedes, quoted in Holmes, Contours of a worldview, 230.

12. Ibid., 231.

13. The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia.

14. Ibid.

15. Alvin Toffler, Future Shock (New York: Bantam, 1970), 289.

16. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, quoted by Robert Higgs, on Mars Hill Tapes: May/June 1996, vol. 21, Ken Myers, ed.(Charlottesville, Va.: Mars Hill Tapes, 1996).

17. Ibid.

18. Ibid.
19. Ibid.

20. Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism (New York: Warner, 1979), 190.
21. Michael Novak, The Joy of Sports (New York: Basic Books, 1976), 27.

22. Ibid., 34.

23. David Puttnam, producer, Chariots of Fire (Burbank, Calif.: Warner Home Video, 1991).

24. Arthur Holmes, Contours of a World View, 224.

25. Ibid., 228.

26. Ibid., 231.

27. Ibid.

28. Ibid., 228.

29. Albert Camus, quoted in Michael Novak, The Joy of Sports, 172.

30. Thomas Aquinas, quoted in Arthur Holmes, Contours of a World View, 231.

©1998 Probe Ministries.


The Christian Mind

The Need for a Christian Mind

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matt. 4:17)(1) This familiar admonition was first
spoken by John the Baptist and soon after it was echoed by Jesus. The phrase is certainly worthy of
a great deal of attention; it provides a lot of food for thought. For the moment, though, let’s
concentrate on the first word: Repent. This expression is a central portion of the doctrines
concerning sin and salvation. Literally it refers to a change of mind. It does not mean that
one is to be sorry for some action. Thus, the first hearers were admonished to realize that they were
in need of radical change before a holy God, beginning with their minds. They were to turn from sin
to God by changing their thinking. Certainly the same holds true for us. Most of us are in need of
reminders that lead us back to one of the crucial aspects of our salvation: repentance, or a change in
our thinking. In addition, we should couple such memories with the realization that our changed
minds should always be alive to God. To paraphrase Kepler’s famous phrase, we are to “think
God’s thoughts after Him.” Since the Christian life is all-inclusive, the mind is included.

But, some may ask, do we actually have a mind? Current research and thought in the fields of
neuroscience and evolutionary psychology concludes that we are much too free with the word
mind. Perhaps we should get used to making reference to the brain, rather than the mind.
“Some neuroscientists are beginning to suspect that everything that makes people human is no more
than an interaction of chemicals and electricity inside the labyrinthine folds of the brain.”(2) E.O.
Wilson, the father of what is called sociobiology, proposes that we can determine an ethical system
based on scientifically observable evidence. He writes, “The empiricist argument holds that if we
explore the biological roots of moral behavior, and explain their material origins and biases, we
should be able to fashion a wise and enduring ethical consensus.”(3) Thus, ethics are not to be
found external to physical reality; there is no mind through which we can respond ethically. It
seems that Wilson and those who are like-minded believe “the mind is headed for an ignoble fate.
Just as the twinkle of stars was reduced to nuclear explosions, and life itself to biochemical
reactions, so the brain may one day be explained by the same forces that run the rest of the
universe.”(4)

Such perspectives should come as no surprise if we are aware of the permeation of a naturalistic
worldview in both the physical and social sciences. The Christian, though, is not relegated to this
type of reduction. A biblical worldview makes it clear that we are more than physical beings; we
are also non-physical beings made in God’s image. As a popular joke from the nineteenth century
says:

What’s the matter?
Never mind.
What is mind?
No matter.(5)

The truth of the joke should not be lost on those of us who claim to be followers of Christ. We
should realize the importance of cultivating Christian minds. As the great statesman Charles Malik
stated, “As Christ is the Light of the World, his light must shine and be brought to bear upon the
problem of the formation of the mind.”(6)

The Scriptures and the Mind (Part 1)

“Come now, and let us reason together, says the LORD” (Isa. 1:18). Imagine you are in a courtroom.
You are the defense attorney; the prosecutor is God Himself. He has just invited you, Judah’s
attorney, to engage in debate concerning the case at hand which happens to focus on the crimes of
your client. Indeed, He wants the two of you to reason together. That is the scenario
presented in this famous passage from the first chapter of Isaiah. God was inviting Judah to debate a
case in court.(7) What a remarkable idea! And what a stunning statement concerning the
importance of the mind. God was calling upon His people to use their minds to see if they could
engage Him in debate concerning their sins.

In a time when the mind appears to be denigrated at every hand, such a passage should serve to
reawaken us to the importance of using the minds God has given us. After all, the Bible, which most
Christians claim to be the very word of God, calls the mind to attention throughout its pages. As J.P.
Moreland states, “If we are going to be wise, spiritual people prepared to meet the crises of our age,
we must be a studying, learning community that values the life of the mind.”(8) Let’s begin such
studying and learning by considering some of what the Bible says about the ungodly and rebellious
mind, and then the godly mind.

First, the ungodly mind is described in terms that are sobering. When we apply these phrases to the
culture around us, we can better understand why what we see and hear disturbs us. For example,
Romans 1:18-28 describes what one scholar called “The Night.” Here are some of the ways
unbelievers’ minds are depicted in this dark passage:

  • Suppressing the truth
  • Rejecting God
  • Foolish speculations
  • Foolish hearts
  • Professing wisdom
  • Exchanging God for a counterfeit
  • Lusting hearts
  • Exchanging truth for a lie
  • Worshipping the creature
  • Degrading passions
  • Exchanging the natural for the unnatural
  • Committing indecent acts
  • Depraved minds

Another somber statement about the ungodly way of thinking is found in 2 Corinthians 4:4: “The
god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving, that they might not see the light of the
gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” Perhaps you have had conversations with
unbelievers that were characteristic of such “blindness.” The person with whom you were talking
just didn’t see it as you attempted to share the truth of Christ. Such responses should not surprise us.

A foolish mind also is described frequently in Scripture. Jeremiah 4:22 is a strong indictment of
those who know the things of God, but foolishly reject them:

For My people are foolish,
They know Me not;
They are stupid children,
And they have no understanding.
They are shrewd to do evil,
But to do good they do not know.

Hosea 4:6 shows the result of God’s reaction when His people reject the truth:

My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.
Because you have rejected knowledge,
I also will reject you from being My priest.

These ancient proclamations could not be more contemporary. May we heed their warnings!

The Scriptures and the Mind (Part 2)

“We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and
we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5). When the apostle
Paul wrote these words, he was very aware of the need for a Christian mind. Philosophical
speculations abounded in his time, just as in our time. Thus he described the Christian’s mental
responsibility in terms of warfare. The Christian mind is active—it enters the battle; it is filled with
the knowledge of God—it is prepared for battle; it puts all things under the lordship of Christ—it
follows the only true commander into battle. And that battle has been won innumerable times, even
in the minds of brilliant people. “One of the most astonishing and undeniable arguments for the
truth of [Christianity] . . . is the fact that . . . some of the most subtle of human intellects have been
led to render submission to the Saviour.”(9) The Bible contains many such insights into the nature
of a Christian mind. We will consider two of these.

Reason is a term that is descriptive of the Christian mind. This does not mean that a
Christian is to be a rationalist, but rather he is to use reason based on the reason of God found in
Scripture. For example, on one of several occasions Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus to test
Him by asking for a sign from heaven. Jesus responded by referring to their ability to discern signs
of certain kinds of weather. Then He said, “Do you know how to discern the appearance of the sky,
but cannot discern the signs of the times” (Matt. 16:3)? Obviously He was noting how people use
reason to arrive at conclusions, but the Christian mind would conclude the things of God. The book
of Acts indicates that the apostle Paul used reason consistently to persuade his hearers of the truth
of his message. Acts 17:2-3 states that “according to Paul’s custom, he went to them, and for three
Sabbaths reasoned [emphasis added] with them from the Scriptures, explaining and giving
evidence that the Christ had to suffer and rise again from the dead.” For two years in Ephesus Paul
was “reasoning [emphasis added] daily in the school of Tyrannus” (Acts 19:9). In light of the fact
that our contemporary world attempts to reject reason, such examples should spur us to hold out for
the possibility of reasonable dialogue with those around us. After all, those who reject reason must
use reason to reject reason.

If the Christian mind is characterized by reason, such reason must be founded upon knowledge from
God. Upon reflection of their conversation with Jesus on the road to Emmaus, two of the disciples
said, “Were not our hearts burning within us while He was speaking to us on the road, while He was
explaining the Scriptures to us” (Luke 24:32)? The word hearts in this passage refers to
both moral and mental perception. In his letter to the Colossians Paul wrote, “we proclaim Him,
admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, that we may present every man
complete in Christ” (Col. 1:28). And in his Ephesian letter he wrote, “I pray that the eyes of your
heart may be enlightened” (Eph. 1:18-19). May this beautiful prayer apply to us as we consider how
to use our God-given minds!

Mandates for the Mind

“AND YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR
SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND, AND WITH ALL YOUR STRENGTH” (Mark 12:30). These words
have echoed for thousands of years, beginning with Moses and leading to Jesus. They contain the
first of what I call Mandates for the Mind: Strive to Know God. To love someone we must
know him or her. In the case of my wife, for instance, it would have been absurd to declare that I
loved her before ever meeting her. My love for her implies an intimate knowledge about
and knowledge of her. In the same manner we are to strive both to know about God
and to know Him intimately. Our minds are crucial to this mandate. It is my contention that
one of the major problems in contemporary Christianity is that too many of us are attempting know
God without using our minds to investigate what He has told us of Himself in Scripture.

The second mandate is that the Christian mind should strive for truth. “Jesus therefore was saying
to those Jews who had believed Him, ‘If you abide in My word, then you are truly disciples of
Mine; and you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free’” (John 8:31-32). Abiding in
His word implies a continual dedication to using the mind to search the Scriptures, the place where
His truth is written.

The third mandate pertains to maturity. Romans 12:2 declares: “And do not be conformed to this
world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what the will of God
is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.” It is pertinent to note that the words
conformed, transformed, and prove refer to continuous action. Thus, the
Christian mind is to be characterized by continuous development toward maturity. Hebrews 5:14
refers to Scripture as “solid food” as the writer describes the mature mind. He then asserts that the
Christian is to “press on [continually] to maturity” (Heb. 6:1). Such maturity is a strategic need in
the contemporary church.

The fourth mandate involves proclaiming and defending the faith. The maturing Christian mind will
actively engage the minds of those around him. For example, Paul modeled this while in Athens:
“[H]e was reasoning in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Gentiles, and in the
market place every day with those who happened to be present. And also some of the Epicurean and
Stoic philosophers were conversing with him” (Acts 17:17-18). Paul proclaimed and defended the
truth of the gospel in the synagogue with his own people, among the populace, and even with the
intellectual elite of the time. Such encounters are easily duplicated in our day.

The fifth mandate refers to the need for study. Philippians 4:8 states: “whatever is true, whatever is
honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if
there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, let your mind dwell on these things.” Note
the final phrase: “let your mind dwell,” a clause indicative of the need for concentration, or study.
The phrase also includes a command that such study is to be continuous. We are to ponder, or think
on the things of God.

Applying the Christian Mind

“Prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves” (James 1:22).
This exhortation from the book of James includes the last of our Mandates for the Mind.
That is, the Christian mind should be applied; what is in the mind should flow to the feet.

It would be easy to state that such a mandate applies to all of life and let that suffice, but specific
examples can help us focus on how this works. Thus we will focus on three contrived stories.

Our first story involves a fellow we will call Billy. Billy is an excellent softball player. Three nights
per week he plays for his company team. He has a reputation as a fierce competitor who will do
virtually anything to win. He also has a volatile temper that explodes in ways that embarrass his
family and teammates. On some occasions he even has had shoving and cursing bouts with
opposing players. Each Sunday, and even on other occasions, he attends a well-known church in his
city. One Sunday his pastor shared an exceptional sermon based on 1 Corinthians 3:16: “Do you not
know that you are a temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” Upon hearing this
message, he suddenly realized that softball games could not be isolated from his commitment to
Christ. Whether in his business, his family, or his softball games he needed to stop and think: if he
is a temple of God, all of life is a sacred task. His life, including softball, was never the same.

The second story focuses on a woman named Sally. She is a teacher in a public elementary school
who is also a young Christian. Her new life in Christ has invigorated her to the point that she is
beginning to think of ways she can share her joy with her students. She decides that at every
opportunity she will encourage the children to discover the wonder of life. As she guides them
through science, she expresses awe as they investigate the simplest flower, or the profundity of the
solar system. As she discusses arithmetic she encourages them to realize the beauty of logical order
in numbers. As she reads stories to them she gently emphasizes the amazing concept of human
imagination. In these ways and others Sally begins to realize the excitement of using her mind for
God’s glory. In addition, she soon finds that she is having conversations with her students that give
her opportunities to share the One who is guiding her.

Our third story concerns Steven, a businessman and father of an eight-year-old boy. Steven has
come to the realization that his son, Jimmy, spends most of his time either watching television or
playing computer games. So he begins to consider ways to stimulate Jimmy’s thinking. Since he
also wants to see Jimmy come to faith in Christ, Steven suggests that they read C.S. Lewis’
Chronicles of Narnia together. Soon, the two of them are delighting in these tales, and
Steven finds ways to discuss the spiritual metaphors in Lewis’ classic fantasies.

These stories may not apply directly to your life at this time. But, hopefully they will stimulate a
broader understanding of how your mind can be used for God’s glory within the routines of life.
Notes

1. All Scripture references are taken from the New American Standard Version.

2. Sharon Begley, John Carey, and Ray Sawhill, “How the Brain Works,” Newsweek (7 February
1983), 40.

3. Edward O. Wilson, “The Biological Basis of Morality,” The Atlantic Monthly (April 1998),
54.

4. Begley, 47.

5. Quoted in Begley.

6. Charles Habib Malik, “Your Mind Matters; Cultivate It,” Active Christians in Education (January
1981), 1A.

7. R. Laird Harris, ed., Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, Vol. 1 (Chicago:
Moody, 1980), 377.

8. J.P. Moreland, Love Your God With All Your Mind (Colorado Springs, CO: Navpress, 1997),
39.

9. R.V.G. Tasker, The Second Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans,
1963), 135.

© 1998 Probe Ministries International