Friday, September 23, 2011

The Discerning Community, Part Two

"Test everything!" Today I continue my thoughts about how we as the people of God can be a discerning community. Two of you, at least, stated that you were looking forward to part two, so here it is.

In today's musings I will simply write out some questions/reflections that we in the discerning community can use when "testing everything." Some of these may be repeat a bit of what I said last week, but I felt I needed to list out some basic questions that the community can use in evaluating everything from a prophetic word, dream or vision to teachings and books, so here goes. Some of these questions are without comment because they are rather obvious.
  1. What is the fruit of the person's life who is bringing this? In Matthew 7:15-23 where Jesus warns His followers to be on the alert for false prophets, He tells us that false teaching can be detected by looking for false living: "thus by their fruit will you recognize them." I could write a book about this passage, but for now please note that the warning Jesus is issuing here is not just about false teaching but false prophets--the people themselves. And we recognize these people by inspecting the fruit of their lives. This requires that we know something of their lives, of course, and of the effect of their lives on others. Does this person's life bring peace, love, joy, etc. to others? Do they live a life of integrity and healthy transparency--I think you get the picture.
  2. Do other, honest and godly, people endorse this? Note what I am not saying here: I am not suggesting that every honest and godly person endorse something. Perfect agreement will not happen this side of Heaven! For example, I know of very few people who adhere to Calvinism who would endorse The Shack, but there are many other trustworthy folks who do (including yours truly!). But generally there should be some sense of broad agreement by some who are clearly healthy followers of Jesus, in my opinion.
  3. Does this _______ promote humility or pride in those who accept it?
  4. Who is lifted up by this ________, the Lord Jesus or someone else?
  5. Does this _______ promote a sort of elitism, i.e., assert that only certain special people "in the know" are buying into this teaching or whatever? Does it imply that special revelation has been given to a chosen few? The sense of "being special" or having "special knowledge" is as old as the Church itself, of course. The early Christian heresy known as Gnosticism appealed to people's prideful desire to be part of the elite group composed of those who know special, deeper truth. Note that this call to elitism (the very opposite of the Good News) can be very subtle, but for me it's a dead giveaway that something is awry. Note, however, that something can be new and embraced early by those who are early adopters without it being elitism. The Pentecostal/Charismatic movements are proof that old truth, long hidden, can be unveiled to God's people and not be accepted by all! New understanding is always breaking in upon us as followers of Jesus, but it won't promote elitism nor will it disagree with the basic tenor of Scripture and the character of God as revealed in Scripture (and yes, I know there isn't even agreement on these two things in Christ's body!).
  6. How does this ______ fit with the whole of Scripture? I touched on this last week, but I bring it up again. The devil knows the Bible and felt free to quote it even to Jesus during His time of testing in the wilderness. But Jesus knew His Abba so well and the general flavor and sense of Scripture well enough to fend off the enemy's deceptive use of Scripture. As a discerning community we will do well to ask Him to empower us to do the same.
Okay, that's enough for now, I think. No one gets everything right, of course, and focus on mere doctrine and teaching will divide us rather than unite us as followers of Jesus, but as a community we can certainly learn to be discerning in the way that Paul described, testing everything and holding fast to the good while discarding the bad. When we do so, deep transformation, an abundance of the fruit of the Spirit, increasingly healthy relationships and the shattering of the kingdom of darkness will certainly be the result.

Learning to discern in love, in community...

Tom, one of Abba's children

Friday, September 16, 2011

The Discerning Community

"Don’t suppress the Spirit, and don’t stifle those who have a word from the Master. On the other hand, don’t be gullible. Check out everything, and keep only what’s good. Throw out anything tainted with evil." (1 Thessalonians 5:19-22, The Message)

I am sometimes fascinated and sometimes frustrated by the gullibility of church folks. As one who visits many different streams in Christ's body, I have discovered that gullibility seems to be widely distributed throughout the various expressions of the church. Although some have suggested that the Pentecostal-Charimatic folks are more likely to be gullible and led astray into strange beliefs and behaviors, I haven't found that to be the case. Anti-supernatural folks are just as deceived as those who see God in everything supernatural, they are merely deceived about a different aspect of God's truth (a de-supernaturalized God is a serious deception and one that the devil loves to promote, methinks).

With the increasingly unsettled nature of our times, people seem to be even more open to strange things. Jesus and His Apostles predicted this, of course, warning us that in the last days the enemy would ramp up his attempts to lead people astray (see, for example Jesus' discourses in Matthew 24 and Luke 21 and 1 Timothy 4:1 ff., 2 Timothy 3:1-9, etc.).

So what are we to do about this? Certainly we are not to live in fear of deception, but just as certainly we do need to be sure that we become an increasingly discerning community. That's what Paul is saying to the Thessalonians in the passage I started with today. Writing to the community of believers in Thessalonica, Paul admonishes them, as a community, to be open to the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit but also to test everything, holding onto that which is good but discarding that which is evil. So part of our becoming a healthy Body of Christ requires us to to test things as a believing community. So how do we do that? What do we use as the measure for our testing? Here are a few of my thoughts. Note that I am assuming that this testing is being done by the community, not just by one self-appointed "guardian of truth"--no one can discern rightly apart from the larger Christian community, in my opinion.

First, Paul himself gives us the first measurement in this passage from 1 Thessalonians: good and evil. This may seem like a no-brainer, but I have seen unthinking believers embrace things that, while not blatantly evil, clearly led in that direction. Usually the reason they had embraced such things was that they hadn't fully thought out the implications of what they were hearing, seeing, reading, etc. Testing something means using our minds to carry it out to its full and logical conclusion. Some things that start out looking good can end up looking pretty strange and downright evil if we do this.

Second, it's good to test things with plain old common sense. Many years ago I heard a woman give a prophetic word stating that financial prosperity would be ours if we would all just take out our wallets and jump up and down on them in Jesus' name. I still smile as I think of the expression on the pastor's face :-) But thankfully, common sense prevailed and our wallets were spared. This is a humorous example, but other examples are not so obvious. For example, I have heard it said in some circles that "God wants to destroy your dignity in order to humble you." How ridiculous is that? Why would a loving Father destroy the dignity of one of his children? God may want to dismantle pride in some of His kids, but He protects the dignity of those He loves (those who wait for Him are never put to shame! Psalm 25:3). Other assaults on our common sense come when people suggest that God "took someone home" through death (Jesus died to conquer death, not use it to get someone to Heaven!), or when folks suggest that natural disasters are God's judgment (see my friend Steve Hill's excellent comments on this by clicking here.)

Third, we can test things against history. Church history and history in general have many lessons to teach us about how people are led astray and the tragic results when that happens. History also helps us be alert to patterns that may help us become more discerning. For example, throughout the past few hundreds years of Western civilization, every time things have looked really bad there have been those who predict that Jesus' return is near. Now we all know that His return is certainly nearer now than ever before, but before we listen to those who drag out their charts and proof texts we may want to consider that this has always happened when things get bad. Similar charts and prophecies of doom have occurred before. (I am not saying that we shouldn't pay attention to the signs of the times but that we will do well to take historical context into account when we do).

Fourth, we can depend upon the spiritual gift of discernment. I personally think this is one of the most important gifts for believers to value and seek to function in, not just to detect error, however, but mostly to discern the good. But a believing community will also do well to pay attention to those credible people in their midst whose "discernment-o-meters" sound yellow alerts at various times.

Finally, and most importantly, we can test things against Scripture. Again, this may seem like a no-brainer, but I am amazed at how rarely this is done, especially in terms of things supernatural. Just because something appears to be a supernatural experience (like trips to Heaven, out of body experiences, seeing angels, etc.), that doesn't mean that it isn't to be weighed against Scripture. Paul said that even an angel who announced a different gospel should be eternally condemned (Galatians 1:8-9), and 1 Thessalonians 5:21 says to "test everything" which would include visions and other supernatural experiences. And when we test such things, we test them against the whole of Scripture, not just a few short verses, comparing such things to what Scriptures shows us about the character of God and the nature of the New Covenant given to us through Jesus. I recently came across an example of this. I heard or read about a little child's trip to Heaven in which s/he was told that Christians are to start keeping the feasts of Israel! Anyone familiar with Paul's letters knows that such a statement is not trustworthy (Galatians comes to mind, along with Colossians 2:13-23), yet because the false teaching is couched in supernatural language some folks will naively embrace this and become entangled in something that will lead away from the grace-filled life in Jesus.

I could go on with many more examples, but this is getting pretty long already. Can you tell I am passionate about this? Yes, Tom, the man who emphasizes intimacy with Papa God as primary, still very much believes that what we believe about God matters! Mere intellectual belief is, of course, a false teaching in and of itself, but that doesn't mean that some attention to thinking about what is true and trustworthy isn't necessary, especially for any community of believers. Paul made it clear that we are as Christ's people not only to be open to the supernatural working of the Spirit but also to be open to testing together everything that comes our way. Gullibility may be cute when we are pulling someone's leg for fun, but it can be dangerous when we are dealing with the deeper things of life.

I will write more about all of this next week. This is part one :-)

Thankful to be part of the larger, discerning community.

Tom, one of Abba's children

Friday, September 9, 2011

"The LORD was with him..."

Today is the 11 month anniversary of Jettie's departure, and try as I might, I cannot ignore it. But I choose this day to reflect on God's goodness to my family and me as we continue to be led to wholeness by our loving Papa God.

"The LORD was with him" is repeated several times in the story of Joseph in Genesis 39. It seems that each time Joseph finds himself in a "pit" of some kind, the Bible answers the pit experience with "but the LORD was with Joseph/him." And that has above all else been my experience over the past two years. From diagnosis to departure, the overwhelming theme of my life has been "the LORD is with me," and I continue to be overwhelmed by this to this very day. Yet this is exactly what Papa had promised as we started the journey way back in August 2009. One of the first scriptures given to us was Isaiah 41:10 "So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand."

So in this context, I write again some things I am learning by experience about this beauty from ashes journey. I write these things not for me but for those of you who share similar losses (and all of us will at some point, of course).

First, I am learning about "firsts." Everyone says that the firsts are hard, of course, and my experience has proven this out. So far, every "first" (holidays, birthday, wedding anniversary, etc.) has triggered a journey into sorrow, usually several days before the actual date. Lesson learned? You cannot avoid these moments, but you can be prepared and not freak out when the emotions go out of control. Knowing that grieving the firsts has also helped me when unexpected firsts hit me. As I have noted before, our subconscious self keeps track of things even when our conscious mind is not aware of them. I have discovered that unknown firsts would ambush me: first time I saw a Wendy's, first time I saw any car like the ones Jettie drove over the years, even the first anniversary of when all medical help was gone (July had some very hard grieving because of that one!). But I have also discovered that once I realize what is happening, knowing that it's normal to be triggered by firsts helps me run to Papa and have Him put things back into perspective as He holds me and catches my (many tears).

Second, I have learned that little surprises that trigger tears continue to come even 11 months into the journey. The difference now, of course, is that the tears are fewer and last a shorter time. God does heal our broken hearts, dear ones. This hasn't happened fast enough for my tastes, but because He is with me, I know that healing is coming at just the right pace. So for those of you who find yourself still triggered, know that Papa's embrace is there for you, always and every time.

Third, I think I have also learned that the depth of our relationship with God going into a time of grief helps to mitigate some of the effects of loss on us. Everyone grieves some (or should), of course, but those who know Jesus don't have to "sorrow as those who have no hope" (1 Thessalonians 4:13). The most noticeable area for me in this has to do with my lack of anger. I have felt very little anger at God during this entire journey and can honestly say I have never felt anger at Jettie for "leaving us." As I have pondered this, I realized that the tender walk with Papa that He has graced me with plus my unshakeable confidence in His goodness (He doesn't send or "allow" evil things--see my earlier blog about this written December 6, 2010) have somehow made it really hard for me to be angry with Him. How can I be angry at the One who grieves with me, weeps with me, treasures my tears, redeems all of my losses, etc.? And how could I be angry at Jettie? No one ever fought harder to stay with her loved ones than she did. And the tender walk with my Papa has made it easier for me to remember this. So yes, I feel great loss, but the LORD is with me and the depth of His "with-me-ness" astounds me even as it turns me away from anger. (But I am not suggesting that others who experience anger are any less godly, etc. By all means, if you are angry then get it out in the open--that, too, is a mark of healthy relationship!).

Finally, (for now at least). I have learned a few things that have helped me move towards wholeness that I pass along to you.
  • Papa has shown me to avoid regret like the plague! Regret never helps in any context, of course, but it is especially unhelpful in terms of the mourning process. Turn away from it when it comes knocking at your door.
  • I have also learned not to fight the emotions that come upon me. As I have said elsewhere, once we get past the first couple of months of numbness and shock, we can choose when we pour out our tears, but we dare not stuff the emotions that roil up within us. There is, in my experience, tremendous healing in the process of cathartic (cleansing) weeping. Let the tears, the weeping, even the wailing, come!
  • We cannot walk this journey alone! Even as an introvert who processes things best alone, I have been prompted many times to reach out to others who held onto me, listened to me, simply sat with me, etc., as needed. And above all this, many have been praying for my family and me and continue to do so. The evidence that "The LORD is with me" is perhaps most clearly seen in the love of the many others who walk with me. Please, dear ones, don't try this grieving thingy alone! Find others who do indeed know how to "weep with those who weep" and watch how it helps to heal your broken heart.
Okay, enough for now. I sincerely do hope that this yet another season of reflection will serve some of you in some small way.

The LORD is with me...and that says it all.

Tom, one of Abba's children