Saturday, August 29, 2009

Discernment and Yardwork

One of the most sorely lacking disciplines in American evangelicalism today is the discipline of discernment, simply knowing the difference between right and wrong. The proliferation of prominent false teachers and faulty gospels (prosperity gospel, oneness pentacostalism, openness, etc) speak to the general disinterest among professing Christians towards sound Biblical teaching. In fact, one of the fastest ways to find yourself on an island is to question a popular teaching or teacher by comparing their ideas to scripture.

It's not a fun thing to do my any means, but it's completely necessary if you care about your own spiritual development or your church's health. In fact, one of the strongest warning passages in the Bible harshly rebukes those who do not "have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil" as immature unrighteous infants. So God takes the practice of discernment very seriously, and it's worth taking some time to look at here.

But first, some musings on my life as a homeowner.

After we got married two years and a couple days ago, Tricia made the move out to Chicago with me. We stayed in my tiny one-bedroom apartment a few feet from the train tracks for a couple months, then took the plunge and bought our first house. This of course introduced me to a whole new world of responsibility - maintenance, especially the yard.

We had looked at this house several times before buying it, and it seemed that some landscaping work had been done by the previous owners. But because we were looking in late fall and early winter in Chicago, we never actually saw the yard before buying it. Every time we looked, it was covered in snow. Even the day we moved in, there was a major blizzard. It wasn't until around March that all the snow finally melted while we were there (it may have gone away a few weekends while we were out of town, and promptly snowed again), whereupon we discovered additional landscaping in the back yard. Nice.

Here's the thing though. That spring, when plants started growing in the landscaped area, we had no idea what was what. We had never seen what plants were supposed to be in there, so we didn't recognize which sprouts were good and which were weeds. So that first year while we were learning to recognize what belonged and what was an invader, we had to let things grow a bit longer before trying to pull the weeds. This year, now that we know the good plants and some of the weeds look awfully familiar, we can get the evil ones rooted out much faster. And new types of weeds we didn't have last year - well, they're clearly not the good plants we want, so they're easy to spot and make go away.

That's not to say weeding is easy now. Far from it - it's one of the most persistently annoying things we have to do. Getting them all up takes effort, and it hurts, and some of them have nasty thorns, and there's a lot of other things we'd rather be spending our time on, but if we want our garden and flowers and stuff to be healthy and productive, we need to eliminate the weeds that choke the life out of them. It's hard work, but it must be done.

Oh, and the weeds keep growing back. This is especially true if you just pluck what's above the surface and don't dig down to get the root. If you just deal with the visible surface, it'll keep growing back in the same place over and over and over and over and over and over... No, if you really want to get rid of it, you need to dig out the root. Find the place where it draws its strength, and attack it with a vengeance. That'll stop it from growing back there immediately, and just as importantly keep it from reproducing and spreading.

But no matter how well you clear your yard, weeds will come back. All it takes is one kid in the neighborhood blowing dandelion seeds in the air, and you'll find them. You can have a pristine yard with nothing but full healthy grass, but if you let your guard down at all, you'll have nasty weeds before you know it. Diligence is key. It's not enough to root out the weeds once and be done with it. It's something you have to continuously watch for, and every time it looks like they're coming back, you need to put a stop to it before it takes root and reproduces. Know what your lawn and garden are supposed to look like, and aggressively attack anything that doesn't belong.

Oh yeah, discernment? See above.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Any way you want it?

The story of Cain and Abel has always fascinated me. The lightning-fast descent of humanity from the purity of the Eden is astounding. By generation two, we had already sunk from true communion with God, all the way to murder. Think about that. You can start reading our history from the time before sin, and within about two minutes you get to where we're killing each other. If you want a good illustration of the depths of our depravity, there you have it.

There's something in this story that's real easy to gloss over, but if you slow down and think, it can reveal a lot about our natural state. We'll pick up the story in verse 3:

In the course of time Cain brought to the LORD an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the LORD had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard.

This is the first thing we read about after Adam and Eve rebelled and were banished from the garden. They had kids including Cain and Abel, who then grew up and offered sacrifices to God. Why did they start sacrificing? Scripture doesn't explicitly tell us, but there's no reason to think they came up with the idea themselves. Most certainly God told them what to do and how to do it - He was the one to institute the sacrifice.

Now why did God regard Abel's offering and not regard Cain's? Although we don't know exactly what they were commanded, the most reasonable conclusion is that Abel obeyed and Cain didn't. This is reinforced in the NT, where we are told plainly that Cain was evil and Abel righteous. Abel obeyed God and worshiped the way God commanded, while Cain disobeyed and worshiped the way Cain wanted. And God only accepted Abel's worship, while completely rejecting Cain's.

Now how would you react if God had clearly let you know that your actions were disobedient and unacceptable? Would you be repentant? Ashamed? Convicted? Or perhaps the reaction would be denial, self-justifying, trying to make excuses? Let's see how Cain responded:

So Cain was very angry, and his face fell. The LORD said to Cain, "Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it."

Interesting. Cain disobeyed, God called him out on it, so Cain was very angry. Now who was this anger directed at? Certainly Abel to some degree - no doubt he was jealous that little brother was the one God accepted, and this jealous anger led to the first murder.

But above all, Cain was angry at God. 'Who does God think He is, not accepting my sacrifice? Sure, it's not what he told me to do. But isn't my way good enough? I should be able to worship Him however I want!' Again we see how quickly and thoroughly we were corrupted. Just a couple chapters ago we were created out of dust, and already Cain is trying to dictate terms to God, and upset when God doesn't bow to his wishes. The clay is furious at the potter.

Cain's reaction should make us vomit in terror. The audacity of being angry with God, as though He were in any way answerable to us... And yet, how easy is it to see this same thing going on today? All you have to do is point out the Biblical teaching that salvation is only through faith in Jesus, and watch the fur fly. Oh, that's so unfair! What about people who do this and that other thing? God wouldn't reject them! If God is truly good, he wouldn't be so cruel as to condemn people just for rejecting Jesus. Well fine, if God won't accept such and such, then I don't want anything to do with him! Who does God think he is, anyway?

God's amazingly gracious response to Cain says it all. If you obey, will you not be accepted? It's really not that complicated. God will decide how God is to be worshiped. What right do we have to complain or get angry at the rules our sovereign creator has established? Is it not enough that, while we are all deserving of instant death and condemnation, He has graciously provided a means for salvation and worship? When we complain that the way God has appointed is insufficient, that He should accept worship any way we offer it (as long as it's sincere!), we are no different from Cain.

God owes us nothing. We have earned nothing from Him except wrath. The most spectacular news the universe has ever seen is that God has graciously placed our sin on Jesus on the cross, pouring out on him the fullness of wrath due to us, has counted us as righteous with Christ's own righteousness, and though we had been His enemies, He has through no merit of our own raised us up with Christ to bless us now and forever.

Let us be overwhelmed by the matchless grace God has provided, and stop insisting that we deserve more and better options. We don't even deserve this. Don't be like Cain and think God had better be happy with whatever we offer. Let's be like Abel and glory in the grace and goodness of what God has done.