Where is the Victory?

Another tragedy has rocked our country and has left pundits scrambling to be heard the loudest for their cause in order to take advantage of it.  While racism and guns will be blamed – and may be part of the problem – the root of this is sin.  Racism does not exist without sin.  Gun violence does not exist without sin.  If we fix the sin problem we won’t have these tragedies any more.

And that’s the biggest problem.  Even if Christianity is wildly successful at taking people who are full of hate and filling them with the love of Jesus, all it takes is one person for such events to happen again.  But more to the point, does the church appear to be the least bit successful in reaching our culture and turning people from hate to love?  Certainly there are grand stories to be shared but overall it seems as though we are losing the battle.  And this is not just an issue in the United States.  In many places that were once predominantly Christian, it appears as though the battle has already been lost.  Grand cathedrals are no longer places of worship but are tourist attractions and markers of history of a bygone era.

From the perspective of most people, society seems to be getting worse, not better.  If that is the case, the broader question is why.  Why has the church lost ground in society?  Why has sin become so predominant everywhere we look?  And more importantly, why wasn’t sin defeated at the cross?

There are no easy answers to these questions and how a person responds to them will vary widely on the theology they’ve been taught to believe.  It wasn’t that long ago – a hundred years or so – that the predominant theology said the world would keep improving until the gospel reached everywhere and it would usher in Jesus’ Kingdom.

Now, many people believe just the opposite.  The world is getting worse and worse and it will only be fixed when Jesus returns with a sword to strike down His enemies.  Regardless of the interpretation or how literally one takes it, the book of Revelation certainly depicts a lot of calamity before peace is achieved.

This still begs the question of why though.  Why has the devil not been defeated?  It’s certainly a very hard argument to make that he is not present and active in the world today.  Where is the victory over sin and death that we were promised?  Are all of the promises of the cross only valid at the end of this age?

I don’t have all of the answers but I do have a few thoughts.  For starters, Satan has definitely been defeated already.  In our limited ability, we often depict a battle between God and Satan; I still use such metaphors myself.  That gives far too much credit to Satan and not nearly enough credit to God.  This was never a battle because that would imply that Satan ever had a chance at winning.  Satan has led a rebellion and that rebellion has been thwarted because it never stood a chance to begin with against an all-powerful God.

What we experience today is the effects of the rebellion.  The world is currently Satan’s domain.  He is the prince of this world.  To depict things in a modern context, Satan is holed up in a little house with the full force of the military outside of his door.  He currently has full reign over the things in that house but there is no way that he is getting away.  His rule is not absolute nor is it eternal.  While he holds sway over humanity now and he holds us hostage, it is only temporary and he has not usurped God’s power.

Satan has been defeated at the cross but we still see the effects of sin and death because we are incapable of viewing time from God’s perspective.  Two thousand years and counting since the time of Jesus is a very long time to us but it is the blink of an eye to God.  The rebellion has been crushed but Satan is still going to take as many people with him as he can.

We live in “the end of this age.”  Ever since Jesus ascended to heaven, every generation has had people who were convinced that He would return in their lifetime.  No matter the signs that people see, we don’t know when His return will be.  The end of the age can end tomorrow or it can stretch on for another two thousand years.  That seems unlikely to us but it certainly seemed unlikely to many in the early church who also expected Jesus’ immediate return.

The victory that we experience now is not the victory that we long for.  We long for a time when there will be no more sin or death.  We long for a time when all things will be perfect.  That is not this time.  There will be a day when that is realized however.  It has already been accomplished but it has not been put into effect yet.

We do see parts of the victory in the world around us though.  Amidst the kind of horror that we can only hope and pray we never experience, we can see Christians who respond with love and forgiveness.  This does not mean that there is not also sorrow and anger but I believe that it is only through the power of God that any kind of peace can be given in this kind of situation.

Compare the response of Christians to tragedy to that of non-Christians.  While I can’t say that it is universal, in general there is certainly a greater amount of love and forgiveness that surrounds a tragedy.  That is the victory of the cross that we experience today.  It is the ability to handle the worst of what life has to offer and still awake the next day and say “God is good.”  It doesn’t mean that a Christian is happy about the circumstances but they can still have a peace that passes understanding knowing that God still has the victory despite the evidence that sin is alive and well today.

In the end, we still long for the day when all sin is eradicated and Satan has no power over us.  While we wait, we will endure the effects of a broken world that is in rebellion against God.  But we do so knowing that it is temporary.  We will see the full effects of victory and we can experience the partial effects of it now.

What is Forgiveness?

It has become apparent to me that we really have no concept of what forgiveness really means.  Of course it’s not a surprise that the non-Christian world cannot understand the concept of absolute forgiveness, but I’ve been rather shocked that the church doesn’t seem to grasp the concept either.  As a pastor I’ve perhaps foolishly assumed that since forgiveness is something I spend a lot of time preaching about, that the church would actually understand it.

Theologically every Christian should understand the idea that sins are forgiven through Jesus and the cross.  This is not the stumbling block for forgiveness.  The real stumbling block becomes in how it is applied in everyday life.

When we ask God for forgiveness, there are no strings attached and it is instantaneous and complete.  Forgiveness from other people is a much more complicated venture even though it shouldn’t be.  Make no mistake about it, sin carries consequences and just because forgiveness is granted, it doesn’t mean that the consequences don’t still exist.  A criminal is not released from prison just because he is sorry for his actions or even if the person he has wronged has forgiven him.  Likewise, if a sin occurs within a relationship, that offense can easily be forgiven but that does not mean that there has not been damage done to that relationship.

The trouble with forgiveness from a human perspective is two-fold.  The first is whether the forgiveness we offer is truly unconditional.  There can be no forgiveness unless it is unconditional.  Our tendency is to attach strings to our forgiveness.  We’ll forgive someone so long as they make up for their wrongdoing.  We’ll forgive someone so long as they never do it again.

The second problem with forgiveness is that we place limits on the number of times we will offer it.  Matthew 18:21-22 has a telling example of forgiveness.

21 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”

22 Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.

Peter thought he was being gracious by being willing to forgive someone seven times but Jesus responded by saying “not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”  The number is not meant to be literal but rather as a statement that forgiveness does not have a limit.

This certainly goes against our human nature.  There is a saying, “fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.”  In other words, if we’ve been wronged more than once, it’s partly our own fault for forgiving and trusting a person again.  But this isn’t the way that forgiveness works.  Yes, we can forgive but the relationship remains damaged.  However, our forgiveness should not be contingent on whether a person may or may not wrong us again.

It’s easy to forgive when we believe a person made a solitary mistake.  Whether it was an out of character burst of anger or a momentary lapse in judgment, we find it easier to forgive when we think it’s not going to happen again.

However, when a person continually disappoints us, whether it’s through continual drug relapses or through repeated infidelity, that’s where forgiveness really matters.  Can you forgive someone when they’ve done the same thing to you a fifth time?  The Bible not only says that we should, it is demanded of us.

If we refuse to forgive someone because they’ve hurt us for the fifth or tenth or twentieth time, do we want God to hold us to the same standard?  How many times have we hurt God?  How many times have we placed something at a higher value than God?  How many times have we felt God calling us to do something but instead said “no thanks, I’ll do it my way”?

As I’ve said, sin has consequences and this isn’t in any way to imply that forgiveness means that a person should continue to stay with an abusive partner or to endure whatever other things sin brings about.  But it does still mean that we’re called to forgive.  In some cases the hurt is so great and the damage done is so terrible that it will take years in order to unconditionally forgive someone.  That’s possible but it is not an excuse to not forgive.

If there is no sin so great that God can’t forgive, there should be no sin so terrible that we are not willing to forgive it.  If the pain is too terrible right now, at least begin by acknowledging that there can be a time in the future when you can forgive unconditionally.

When we forgive, we open ourselves up for the possibility of future hurt.  We expose ourselves and take down our guard.  Our nature and perhaps even common sense says that this is foolish because we naturally seek to protect ourselves.  But the reality is that if we refuse to forgive unconditionally, we don’t need anyone else to hurt us.  Instead we’re just continually hurting ourselves.

Common sense as well as scientific research tells us that when we hold on to grudges and do not forgive, we cause ourselves harm.  Not only do we find ourselves filled with anger and bitterness, our health suffers when we won’t forgive.  We suffer from high blood pressure, stress, tension, and all other manner of problems.

In the end, there can only be one kind of forgiveness and it has to be the same kind of forgiveness that God grants us.  That kind of forgiveness is unconditional and without limit.  There is no sin so great that God will not forgive us when we repent and God will continually forgive us no matter how many times we fail Him.

Does God Exist?

When looking at the turmoil around the world today – fighting happening everywhere, innocent people dying, children being abused – it would be easy to question the existence of God.  The sad irony is that this statement is true today, it was true ten years ago, and it will be accurate no matter how far in the future you stumble across this post.  The world is a frightful, violent, and sinful place.  There will always be fighting in the Middle East, there will always be countries undergoing revolution, there will always be sinful people doing horrible things to other people.

So with the presence of so much evil in the world there are plenty of people who want to take this as proof that God does not exist.  Because if God existed – and He is the loving God that we claim Him to be – then He certainly wouldn’t turn a blind eye to all of the horrible things that go on in our planet.

There are two approaches to this false notion.  The first is the truth that God exists but God is not present everywhere.  Listen carefully because this is not saying that God is not omnipresent – everywhere.  I know it sounds like I just contradicted myself.  What I mean is that God does not dwell in the heart of every person.  Sinful people do sinful things.

If you sit in a bright and sunny room and then close the curtains to that room, the room gets dark.  The existence of dark in that room is not proof that light does not exist.  Everyone knows that it is just outside of the curtains and that to make the room light once again all that is needed is to open the curtains.  It’s the same way with God.  Evil exists because God has been shut out.  God does not force Himself upon anyone and turn them into mindless creatures who can do nothing but follow His will.

So, evil exists not because God wants it to but because man wants it to and God has given man freewill to choose rather than forcing us all into loving Him and obeying all that He says.

The other side to the problem of evil is that God has done something about evil; He fixed the problem once and for all by sending His Son into the world to die for humanity’s sin.  As horrific as the problem of evil looks when we glance around at the world today, that is minor compared to the real issue.  The horrors that exist in this world, while certainly not meaning to trivialize them, are nothing compared to the fact that sin separates us from God.  Separation from God is hell, figuratively and ultimately literally as well.  The horrors of this world are just a fraction of how horrible eternal separation from God truly is.

Of course everyone wants a quick solution to the problem of sin.  It would be nice if Jesus’ work on the cross had not only defeated sin but had also eradicated it.  It has been 2000 years, so what’s the hold up?  Clearly God does not work on our timetable and the short lifespan that we enjoy is nothing in the eyes of God.  He is not slow to enact His plan.  The coming of Jesus was first prophesied about way back in Genesis 3:15 in the Garden of Eden.  It took thousands of years until Jesus came.  The Israelites left Egypt in 1446 BC to go to a land that had been promised to their forefathers 400 years beforehand.  While they temporarily possessed much of it, they never took hold of the entire inheritance and still wait 3800 years later.  The Israelites were promised a descendant of King David to reign on his throne forever.  It took 1000 years for Jesus to come and 2000 years after that the people of Israel are still waiting for that literal reign to occur.

The point of the brief history lesson is just a reminder that evil is already defeated; it is taken care of, eliminated, wiped away.  What we see and will continue to see are the death throes of sin and evil.  It’s not that God doesn’t exist or that He can’t handle the problem of evil.  He already has.  The problem is that we cannot see the big picture and we are here for what is ultimately a short time in what appears to be a long process to our eyes.

The unfortunate reality is that while we wait for the culmination of sin’s defeat we will continue to experience sin and evil in this world.  It is not pleasant nor pretty.  It is likely to get even uglier before the end.  Every generation since Christ left has looked around at the evil in the world and been convinced that it was so horrid that it was evidence that Jesus was returning in their lifetime.

Whether Jesus returns tomorrow or in another thousand years is frankly anyone’s guess.  Sin and evil will continue until that day when they are completely eradicated and all of humanity stands to be judged whether at the Judgment Seat of Christ or the Great White Throne of Judgment.  As we wait we have two responsibilities.  The first is to do our best to spread the love of God to fight back against evil.  And the second is to simply pray “Come quickly Lord Jesus.”