Why faith matters, and the reason it often doesn’t

From right, Ren Dejun, Liao Qiang, Peng Ran and Ren Ruiting follow a hymnbook during a Sunday church service in Taipei, Taiwan.

That day (when Stephen was martyred) a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria … Now those who were scattered went from place to place, proclaiming the word.

Acts 8:1,4

 

A few minutes after I read those words in my morning devotion, I opened the local newspaper I subscribe to. I was stunned to read an article on religious persecution happening as we speak, and another article from this country explaining that most Americans don’t care about faith issues.

“Christian family details crackdown on church in China,” the Page A2 headline read.

Liao Qiang, 49, had to flee China with five family members, including his 23-year-old daughter, Ren Ruiting, after “living under constant surveillance for the past seven months after authorities detained them and dozens of other members of their prominent but not government-sanctioned church in December.”

China’s ruling Communist Party has carried out a widespread crackdown on all religious institutions in recent years – not just Christian churches, but institutions of all faiths. It has bulldozed churches and mosques, the article states, and incarcerated more than 1 million members of Islamic ethnic minorities in what are termed “re-education centers.”

Qiang and his family fled to nearby Taiwan, where they are free to worship as they choose. They attended a public worship service this week for the first time in seven months.

Persecution forces church growth

In the book of Acts and in China, persecution forced the church to scatter.

While the government leaders in both circumstances were trying to suppress faith, and especially Christianity (in Acts), the opposite happened. Faith spread.

Sometimes it takes persecution to grow our faith.

We often ask why bad things happen to good people. We wonder why we struggle in various parts of our lives. We wonder whether God has abandoned us.

Actually, God may be drawing us closer to Him through our struggles. We don’t really know what persecution is in this country – not to the point where believers are martyred or active churches are bulldozed.

Perhaps that day is coming.

Apathy kills the church

The other article I read in the local paper? On Page A5: “Poll: Americans tend to go it alone (Most don’t seek clerical advice)”

That poll blames technology for many Americans’ choice not to seek advice. Since we can Google information on literally any subject, this article says, we don’t see the need to seek advice from clergy (or anyone else, for that matter).

The poll also blames the sex abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church for reducing clergy interaction with that institution.

“At the same time,” the article concludes, “more Americans describe religion as unimportant in their lives, and church membership and service attendance have declined. Gallup polling shows about half of Americans said they attended religious services within the past week in the mid-1950s, while just about a third say they did now.”

Our response

What does faith mean, anyway? Is it worth dying for, as Stephen did? Is it worth being forced from home to parts unknown, as happened to the early New Testament Church and is still happening in China and other parts of the world today?

For U.S. residents, faith in God costs very little. Perhaps that’s the main reason why it doesn’t mean much to most of us.

Every so often I ask myself, “Do I have to hit rock bottom before I can find God?”

I’ve never done drugs or been arrested. I grew up in a stable home. I’ve always had at least a little money in the bank. I’ve always been healthy.

And yet …

When our family made an out-of-state move before my ninth-grade year, I discovered that I was missing something emotionally. I had a low self-esteem and nothing to lean on.

Eventually, I discovered that Jesus Christ could – and did – fill that void in my life.

So, in a sense, yes, I did hit rock bottom. Not outwardly, not materially, but spiritually, I did.

As with the early disciples and the family in China, I was forced to make a decision. My physical life wasn’t at stake, but my spiritual life was.

If something important to you is forcibly taken away, how would you respond?

When a loved one dies or an emergency strikes, how do you respond?

Do you blame God, or do you turn to Him?

That’s not a theoretical question.

Places where faith grows

Perhaps that’s why most people who accept Christ as their Lord and Savior do so as children. Young people – age 15 and younger – are still searching for meaning in life. Their values aren’t set yet. If you grow up in a Christian home you have a better chance to accept that faith yourself. There are exceptions, of course. And if you didn’t grow up in a Christian home, you can find such a faith in other places as well.

Perhaps a catastrophic event will force your hand. Perhaps that’s what it must take.

That’s why Christianity’s growth is explosive in China and Africa, but not the United States.

 

Christianity’s ‘explosive growth’ in China – and the official pushback

https://www.inkstonenews.com/china/christianity-protestant-church/article/2133812

Christianity is not illegal in China, but it has faced a long history of suppression and official distrust ever since missionaries began arriving with European and American merchants hundreds of years ago.

 

Christianity’s future lies in Africa

https://sojo.net/articles/christianitys-future-lies-africa

The continent (Africa) has become the epicenter in the fight against extreme poverty and inequality, housing over half of the world’s people who are living in the quicksand of extreme poverty. Conflict, corruption, illicit financial flows, gender-based violence, exploitation, the impacts of climate change, among other challenges, have long stunted Africa’s growth and suffocated human flourishing …

Less than 20 percent of evangelical pastors have received seminary training, which poses both a challenge and an opportunity … But a revitalized and more vibrant evangelical church that is increasingly committed to both evangelism and holistic transformation will be an essential force in overcoming these and other challenges.

Our impersonal, judgmental lives

Is the United States becoming a Third-World country? Extreme poverty, conflict, corruption, illicit financial flows, gender-based violence, exploitation, climate change … These topics dominate discussion boards today, don’t they?

But how much of these discussions are personal? We talk in the third person all the time. Most of us don’t know what extreme poverty looks like. Corruption: have we experienced it personally? Climate change? Illicit financial flows?

These issues matter, of course, but until they become personal, they remain debate topics and nothing more.

After all, Americans prefer to live alone. We can take care of ourselves, thank you very much.

Just don’t ask me to think deeply about any subject.

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Repentance is a practice, and other truths

 

Nuggets of truth I learned in a year-long study through several Old Testament books:

 

  • God’s definition of success is to be faithful, and we do that by meditating on His word.
  • We are on God’s team. He is not on our team.
  • Sometimes, we don’t understand God’s directions. But He sees the big picture.
  • The Christian life is a marathon. Jesus has already finished the race, and returned to help us through it.
  • What are my gods? Where do I spend my time? What do I think about during the day, and at night? What do I worry about?
  • God sometimes empties us before He can fill us.
  • Kindness leads people to repentance.
  • Christ redeems us, even if we are foreigners (as Boaz did for Ruth).
  • What do we do with our idols when they don’t work? We often prop them up, and keep using them – to our destruction.
  • Repentance: Turn away from sin, turn to God.
  • We have to ask for deliverance continually. This is sanctification.
  • I need to lead with confidence where God has given me influence.
  • The Psalms are like a waterfall. Singular verses are good, but they aren’t a waterfall.
  • The Psalms have the power to realign our hearts to God. They are cracking the vault of my buried emotions.
  • God used both success and trouble to shape David’s life.
  • Do I want to let God write my story, or do I want to write it for Him?
  • Hopelessness is pervasive today. We look in all the wrong places for hope.
  • Am I looking for relief, or relationship?
  • David inquired of the Lord …
  • I don’t know God’s timing.
  • We are living our lives in the middle of God’s throne room. We get to join God in what He is doing.
  • Win or lose, I should worship God.
  • Do I reflect on how merciful God is in my life? What do I dream about? Probably about me, not God. He rested on the seventh day to reflect on what He’d created.
  • Israel is a great nation because it has a great God.
  • Am I willing to trade my plan for His, even if I don’t see it fulfilled?
  • Many of our battles are internal – lust, greed, pride, self-centeredness. But the victory has already been won.
  • Repentance is a practice. I have to get rid of sin. Otherwise, the pain stays.
  • Obedience brings blessing. Disobedience brings judgment.
  • Church attendance isn’t enough. A personal encounter with God changes lives.
  • Israel trusted in the ark of God, instead of the God of the ark.
  • God will not be mocked. He expects His people to live differently than everyone else does.
  • God intends us to build each other up, even if others hurt us – the way David respected Saul.
  • God rested on the seventh day – not just to rest, but to reflect on what He’d done.
  • When a prophet shows up, usually there’s a reason and it doesn’t go well.
  • We can choose to sin, but we cannot choose the consequences. Stop before it starts. The longer we wait, the harder it gets.
  • God is just. We blow off sin. God does not. (For example, when David took a census of Israel toward the end of his life, he wanted to celebrate Israel’s size, not God’s power. God’s judgment for that cost 70,000 people their lives.)
  • God limited places of worship to keep pagan practices out, but Solomon worshiped at high places of pagan gods.
  • The focus is not what I need, but who I need.
  • God’s gifts do not ensure that we use them wisely.
  • We do not create wisdom. We discover it.
  • Learn from the mistakes of others. We don’t have to experience everything to learn lessons.
  • Even when we are distant from God, we can call out to Him for forgiveness.
  • The central Temple building is no longer needed. Our bodies are God’s temple.
  • Solomon fulfilled the Temple obligation; that was not devotion.
  • Leaders are to execute justice and righteousness.
  • Each day presents new opportunities to trust God or go our own way.
  • Not all adversity is because of sin, but if we face adversity, a heart check is a good idea.
  • Pleasure is only for a moment. God is forever.

 

 

 

Science proves Jesus’ authority

“Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”

Matthew 7:21

 

We have a pretty good understanding of half of Jesus. Here in the United States, we understand His humanity fairly well.

The human Jesus

When Jesus says things like feed the hungry, clothe the naked and visit those in prison, we can wrap our minds around that. A fair number of us do some of those things.

Jesus said, love your neighbor as yourself. Do to others as you would have them do to you. We quote these every so often (more so to get others to do to us, rather than us loving them, actually).

We compare ourselves with the Jesus who walked the Earth. He became one of us. We love the warm fuzzy Christmas story when Jesus was born.

Do we ever let Jesus grow up? We prefer Him as a baby, where we can hold Him in our hands, and tell Him what to do.

The other half of Jesus, however …

The divine Jesus

If you read the Bible at all – Old Testament as well as New Testament – you’ll discover rather quickly that Jesus also is divine. Jesus is God Himself.

This part of Jesus we have a hard time understanding.

I’ll give you just one proof of Jesus’ divinity. There are many others, I’m sure.

Before Jesus met the general public, He spent 40 days in the wilderness. This was an intense period with His Father, fasting and praying, learning and receiving the tools He would need to connect humans on Earth with God in heaven.

At the end of this period, Satan came to Jesus and tempted Him to sin three times. The third temptation went like this:

 

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! For it is written,

‘Worship the Lord your God,

and serve only him’.”

Matthew 4:8-10

 

I used to picture Jesus getting angry with Satan here, sending him to time-out like an unruly child.

I don’t think that’s the way it happened, though.

I think Jesus was laughing at Satan. Really.

Jesus the Creator

To put the temptation in perspective, listen to this 12-minute video from Louie Giglio, a pastor in Atlanta, Ga., who compared the earth, the sun and several stars to the size of a golf ball.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D37UtbViKRw

 

Jesus created those stars. The Bible makes that clear.

 

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in OUR image, according to OUR likeness …”

Genesis 1:26, emphasis added

 

God is one God, but He is plural. Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Three parts, one God. This is the divine side of Jesus. He is our Creator.

The apostle John understood this.

 

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and WITHOUT HIM NOT ONE THING CAME INTO BEING … And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory … full of grace and truth.

John 1:1-3, 14, emphasis added

 

Jesus, then, while born as a human baby on Earth, also was around before time began. He created all things.

Fully human, fully God.

Jesus created not only everything on Earth, He created our sun. He created our solar system. The Milky Way. Our galaxy. All the stars. All the galaxies, trillions of light years away and beyond.

God blows our minds

As Giglio describes very well, the vastness of God is beyond our comprehension.

If the Earth was a golf ball, he said in the video, the sun would be 15 feet in diameter. You could fit 960,000 golf balls inside the sun.

After describing several other stars, Giglio brought up Canis Majoris, the largest known star. If the Earth was a golf ball, he said, this star is the height of Mount Everest – almost six miles high. You could fit enough golf balls inside that star to cover the state of Texas – 22 inches deep.

Wrap your mind around that.

Watch the video. It’s awesome.

The tiny little powerless devil

Now, picture Jesus on top of a very high mountain with Satan, where Satan is offering “all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor” if only Jesus would worship him. That’s impressive, right?

Not to Jesus.

All Satan could offer Jesus was a golf ball – and even that only because Jesus gave it to him.

This is how much power God has.

Satan is barely a speck in the circle of life compared to the vastness of the universe that the living God made.

That’s why Jesus flicked Satan away like a fly on the wall. “Get away from me. You got nothing.”

I can picture Jesus saying that.

Jesus knows us intimately

And yet, this Jesus, who created the golf-ball-size Earth as well as the sun, stars, galaxies and all the vast universe, wants to have a relationship with you and I. We are just specks on that golf ball, and yet He cares about us.

If you let Giglio’s video run, he’ll take you to another part of the same talk, where he explains how small and detailed God is – down to the tiniest atom in our bodies, and parts of atoms that God (Jesus) also created.

It’s mind-blowing.

The God of vastness, the God of minute detail – this is who we worship.

What better time to discover this than Passion Week? That’s Christian jargon for the week Jesus was crucified and resurrected.

Jesus didn’t have to do that. He flicked Satan away, yet He didn’t kill him. He let Satan rule the golf ball. Then gave us humans a way out.

Satan still rules Earth, but only because God lets him. Satan’s time is short, and he knows it.

Attend church this weekend. Discover for yourself who the true God is.

Not the god of Earth. All he can offer you is a golf ball.

Worship the God of heaven. He offers you life.