God’s Inefficiency

“For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.
For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person
one would dare even to die —
but God shows his love for us
in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
Romans 5:6-8

Imagine if “at just the right time” was at a time when the Sermon on the Mount could have been live-streamed across the world. People from all nations would have been able to see and hear Jesus, witness his miracles, and invite him to fly to their nation. God could have made “at just the right time” to be a technological age. But he didn’t.

Instead, God’s “at just the right time” was a time when travel was difficult and slow and dangerous. It proves that God is inefficient. Not inefficient because he lacks ability, and not because he is disorganized. This is no excuse to be wasteful, after all, “People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). It is precisely because the “how” matters that “the right time” was during an age when technology consisted of papyri and cargo ships which would spread knowledge, wealth and culture beyond anything previously imaginable. God’s inefficiency challenges our understanding of what “progress” really is.

As we consider our technologically advanced culture, let us remember that God chose dirty paths over well maintained highways as the road for the Son of God to walk upon. He chose personal face-to-face relationships over video-conferencing. He chose a group of men who consistently failed to understand what he was saying instead of the religious pace-setters. He chose an approach that many today would consider incredibly inefficient.

As you look at your life, consider the people who have had the greatest impact on you. I’m willing to go out on a limb and guess they were people who went out of their way to nurture and invest in you. Maybe it’s time for each of us to look at our busy lives and reconsider where we are spending our time and how we’re trying to get the word out about who God is and what he’s done for us through Jesus Christ.

If you’re anything like me, technology has a way of making us feel more productive than we really are. It convinces us that we have cultivated more relationships than we really have. It has a way of sucking us in and chewing up our time, ironically creating distance between us and the people who are right next to us. Let’s not fear technology, but let’s make sure it is serving us instead of the other way around.

The gospel is inherently personal and relational. May our commitment to spreading it reflect those characteristics.

An Open Letter, from one EBC pastor to a former one…

Hey Robb,

We’ve never actually met, but we have some friends in common through EBC.  You’ve written a book now, and you keep an online blog.  I haven’t read your book (yet, I would like to eventually), but I’ve read your blog a few times when I’ve seen friends link it up on Facebook.  If you were local I’d love to meet up and chat – honestly, I think we’d probably become friends and enjoy each other’s company.  You probably won’t be surprised that we disagree over a number of important theological issues, but I’m not writing to try to start a debate.  Instead, I have another concern: about how you’ve presented your arguments in their tone and in their hermeneutics.  Most recently, you wrote wrote your post “God vs. Rob Bell…” and I just felt compelled to respond to share these two concerns.

I think it’s important to present your argument with the tone and humility that you want to hear from the person you’re disagreeing with… and I don’t think this post reflects what you want to hear from those you’re trying to engage in conversation. I totally understand the frustration you and other must feel because of the trite and overly-simplistic arguments and rebuttals you’ve heard, but if we’re to have this conversation (especially through text, not person-to-person where non-verbals help clarify what we’re saying) then both sides of the conversation need to be humble and stop the shouting.  If I’m going to enter a healthy debate with “Biblical conservatives” and I want them to really hear what I’m going to say and wrestle with my arguments, then I’m just shooting myself in the foot by cussing and typing paragraphs in all caps.

That said, I do respectfully disagree. You’ve heard the arguments, so I’m not going to go down that road. The one thing I will choose to disagree with is when you wrote “The Bible can be easily used to defend both sides of the debate.” I’m not so sure: I’d agree if you take the word “easily” out. Yes, biblical arguments can be made to support both sides.  But the more complicated our hermeneutics need to be to make our case, the more we need to honestly ask ourselves whether or not we’re shaping our hermeneutic to support what we want to hear. Am I seeking God first and foremost? I’m not anti-culture (if anything, I get myself into trouble by embracing the redemption of culture more often than others think I should), so I’m really not writing this from a Christ-Against-Culture perspective. But as we seek to redeem culture, we need to do so while seeking first Christ and his kingdom. I don’t really expect this to be a “debate winner,” but I’m not really looking to be persuasive, just to respectfully throw out a concern (both for myself and for others) to be aware of.

I’ve studied postmodernism and read Rorty and the other pomo linguistic philosophers.  I’m only mentioning that to clarify that I understand those arguments, and there’s a lot of validity in them.  None of us come without biases, but it seems to me that a lot of postmodern Christians seem to use this in support of their interpretation against conservatives without letting that argument cause them to pause long enough to consider how their biases have colored their own interpretation.  There is such thing as authorial intent, right?  If not, then conversation over, and reading Scripture is an exercise in futility because we can just make it mean whatever we want it to mean.

I’ll wrap this up.  I appreciate the conversation you’re trying to have.  I agree that a lot of arguments against homosexuality seem to just throw out a few Bible verses and want to say, “There!  Take that!  It’s a sin.”  I do think those verses mean that, but we need to have more thoughtful, honest, and critical conversations (self-critical first, then critical of the other’s argument).  I apologize if this has come off as harsh or judgmental or anything other than a concerned brother looking to share those concerns and not knowing how else to get them out to you.

Blessings to you through Christ,
Mike McGarry

Reflecting on Jesus’ Ministry & What I Teach

Have you ever seen something that you’ve seen a bunch of times before, but it’s almost as if it’s the first time you’ve seen it?  Whether or not it’s your wife’s beauty or your favorite song or something else – it just seemed even more amazing and clear than ever before.

That happened to me yesterday in our staff meeting while reading through Colossians 1:19-23.  As I read, the overtones for ministry jumped off the page:

  • What did Jesus do?  Reconciled all things to himself.  He took everything (including the godless and sinful!) and has reconciled it to himself.  That doesn’t mean universalism, it means that all things find their fulfillment in Christ and ought to be judged accordingly. 
  • How did he do it?  Through his shed blood.  He didn’t do it by launching a bloody revolution whereby he judged the oppressors and vindicated the godly.  He did it by enduring the shame that rightfully belonged to the very people who killed him – you and me.
  • Why did he do it?  To present us holy and blameless and above reproach.  Jesus sees us not for who we are right now, but for who we are IN HIM.  He sees us for who He’s making us to be – holy and blameless children of God.

I’ve been wrestling with how faithfully this describes the goal of my ministry.  Is this a good description of what I consistently teach?

I think it’s a healthy and biblical question to ask: Does my ministry reflect Jesus’ ministry?  On one hand, we need to theological qualify that question, because no… your ministry will never reflect Jesus’ ministry… his ministry was done once and for all.  Jesus’ ministry is finished (John 19:28-30), it is now carried on through the Holy Spirit through the Church.  YET, this is still a good and biblical question to ask: Because your ministry ought to reflect Christ.  If you are faithfully proclaiming Christ, then doesn’t it make sense that your ministry would consistently point to WHAT he did followed by HOW and WHY he did it?

The message of my ministry must reflect Christ’s ministry.  I myself cannot repeat what He did, but I must make what He did the bedrock foundation of what I teach and do.

So here are the questions I’m asking:

  • In what ways can my ministry reflect Christ’s ministry? 
  • If what ways am I myself trying to be Christ to students – when instead, I should be pointing them to Christ instead of me?!  I must decrease, he must increase…
  • Has the message of WHAT, HOW, & WHY (above) so penetrated my heart and soul that they saturate everything I teach?
  • Would my students hear this message and think, “Yeah, this sounds like something P.Mike would say,” or would they think, “No, this doesn’t sound familiar at all.”

Learning About God From Santa?

Santa and I have an on-again, off-again relationship.  It’s not that I dislike him or what he stands for, it’s just that I find myself so easily loving him while giving lip-service to Jesus around Christmas-time.  Because really… who doesn’t love getting stuff?  I do, and you probably do too.

But for the last week or so I’ve really been thinking about Santa.  Not in a typical “Santa vs. Jesus” type of way, but in a totally new way for me – I’ve been thinking about how Santa can actually teach me something about God.

Santa teaches me that God is just.  Santa has a “nice” list and a “naughty” list (presumedly, not just so parents can bribe their kids into obedience).  Nice and Naughty really do exist.  Some thoughts and behaviors really are good, and some really are bad.  God has instructed us how to live, and he’s made that known through the Bible and through nature in a general way.  Really, if we’re honest with yourself, which list do you truly belong on? If I’m on the “nice list,” it’s only because my righteousness comes from Christ, not from my own nice-ness.

Santa teaches me that God knows me intimately.  He knows when you’ve been sleeping, he knows when you’re awake, he knows if you’ve been bad or good… it sounds a bit creepy, doesn’t it?  BUT, it means that he’s watching me and he knows me.  Even when I think I’m doing something in secret, I’m not.  Even when I think I’ve gotten away with something, I haven’t.  I don’t like that.  Isn’t this why we have “privacy settings” and control what we make public knowledge and what we keep to ourselves?  God knows me completely, even the rapidly decreasing number of hairs on my head… and he still chose to love me and adopt me as his child.  I am fully known, and fully accepted.

Santa teaches me that God is generous.  Santa is a giver.  But no one outgives God.  As Jesus said in Matthew 7:11, “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!”

In the midst of all the talk and chatter about Santa vs. Jesus, I’m trying to train myself to see Santa as a shadow and a longing for Jesus.  Santa can serve as a shadow, pointing us to the fullness of God in Jesus Christ.  Of course, Santa can also overshadow Jesus when we make him an idol and love “stuff” more than the Maker.

What do you think?  Am I off my rocker?  Am I just thinking too hard?  Or, am I on to something here?  And if I’m on to something… what are some other ways that Santa can serve as a shadow pointing us to God?

Thanks-giving or Thanks-buying?

How many people will be spending their Thanksgiving day writing up a list of things to buy on Black Friday? How many people will be spending their Thanksgiving day writing up their own Christmas list, carefully mulling over everything they want to get and then ranking them in order by what they want the most? Honestly, probably not too many are literally doing those things… but as Christmas approaches, we increasingly turn our minds into a running catalogue of things to buy for ourselves and for others.

Is the irony of Black Friday falling the day after Thanksgiving lost on you?

I know a lot of stores are advertising that their Black Friday sales are starting on Thursday night this year. Please, I beg of you, don’t let Thanksgiving become another shopping day. What’s it saying about us that even Thanksgiving is turning into a day to buy buy buy.

I understand that for many people, Black Friday is about buying for other people (not about getting) and getting a good deal (hey, I’m all for saving a few bucks), but I’m concerned that it’s doing something much more costly to us. I’m concerned that we are so driven by the stuff, that even the givers among us are becoming more materialistic – just in a counter-intuitive way. Instead of focusing on what they’re getting, they’re so focused on what they’re giving that it overshadows being thankful and it overshadows the generosity of God, who gave us the very first and best Christmas present of all.

In case you need a reminder, here’s a short excerpt from a post I wrote a few years ago entitled “Why We Give Gifts at Christmas“:

As we reflect on the sacrifice that God the Son made in being born as a baby boy, remember that the sacrifice was made out of love. God doesn’t want anyone to remain in their sins, that’s why Jesus was born to die on the cross so that we could be forgiven by repentance and faith in Christ. The verse above (1 John 4:9-11) also gives us a hint as to what the life of repentance and faith should look like: “Since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.”

We give gifts on Christmas as a reminder of the gift that God gave us through Jesus Christ. Don’t give gifts this year simply out of social obligation… give them out of joy and thankfulness for what you have received from God.

Christians, Generosity, Tithing, & Fancy Cars

I had a really interesting conversation with a Christian friend the other day who asked a question I’ve been really working through, and since I think best with my fingers on a keyboard, here are some of my thoughts.

The question was something like this: “If God has blessed me financially, is it ok for me to buy a nice car or do I need to give it away?”  Here we go…

First, I think this is a great question that I wish more people would ask and discuss.  It’s such an honest and down-to-earth question that makes the issue of tithing and Christian giving real and practical, I love this.  The question itself comes from a heart that’s doing one of two things: Looking to trap God/Christians into a “they’re only after my money” situation, or (as is the case with my friend) it’s an honest internal struggle to be a faithful steward of what God has entrusted to our care.  I hope that we can all agree that we are stewards, not owners, of the things we have – because we will all one day give account for what we were given and how we used it.

Second, We need to consider the 10% tithe.  I don’t feel the need to go into why a 10% tithe is biblical (if you want more on that, read what Tim Challies wrote HERE).  What I want to focus on is our recognition that we have received much grace from God, and when we realize how deep our need is, how much Christ has given for us and to us, then the Holy Spirit will form within us a generous heart.  If we aren’t generous towards others, it’s probably because we don’t realize how generous God has been towards us.  Christians should be marked by generosity.  Stinginess is distinctly anti-Gospel and unChristian.  I’m not really too stuck on the 10% number, and I’d focus more on the heart and the WHY behind the giving than the numer and the HOW MUCH.  God loves a cheerful giver more than he loves a generous giver, but cheerful givers are usually quite generous.

Third, I think we need to simply ask, “Are you tithing at least 10% of your income?”  If the answer’s no, then don’t buy the car.  If buying the car might cut into your “ability” (or willingness, really) to continue tithing at least 10% then don’t buy the car.  If there are people close to you who are in legitimate need and you’re in a position to help but you choose to buy a newer expensive car instead, then that’s probably a decision to reconsider.  I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s sinful, and I personally wouldn’t hold it against someone (as I explain below, I think a lot of this is a conscience issue – my counsel here is to help individuals work through the various questions that apply), but I do think you should prayerfully consider whether or not buying an expensive car will reduce your ability to give towards the needs of others.

Fourth, I think a lot of this could be a conscience issue.  We all have different idols we fight.  Some value appearances and spend significant money on their wardrobe, hair, etc. to look a certain way; others buy houses they can’t afford because they think it’ll buy them happiness and the ever-elusive American Dream; others buy more books than they have time to read (guess who that would be?!).  If buying this new car would become an idol, a source of temptation, a way to change how others look at you, an object to obsess over and value more than a car should be valued… then don’t buy the car.

Fifth, Will it bring you joy or will it be your joy?  God blesses us in order to be a blessing, but he also wants us to simply enjoy being blessed!  We should not turn God’s blessing into a curse because we’re afraid to take joy and delight in what He’s given us!  God isn’t trying to set you up for a fall by blessing you financially.  If you’ve been faithful with little and He chooses to give you more, continue handling your money the way you have in the past and enjoy the ride.

 As Christians, we should be a people who are marked by generosity: not because we are forced or feel an obligation to give, but because we know how much we have received from our generous God.  If you can buy a nice new car in good conscience and with the above-mentioned questions being answered appropriately, then by all means do so… and enjoy it.

Short Rant on Christian Positivism

Warning: this is a rant… not against anyone in particular, but against some things I’ve generally observed and read lately.

Has anyone else been noticing a recent upswing in “Christian Positivism?” I don’t think that’s a real “thing,” but that’s what I’d call it – Christians emphasizing the positives in life, telling you to be happy, smile more, laugh more, be more hopefull.

Most people who know me wouldn’t be surprised to know I’m not a big fan of Joel Osteen. Well, Osteen has a new book out called “I Declare.” From what I understand, it focuses on you declaring God’s promises over yourself.

I really hope I’m not a depressing (or depressed!) Christian, but let’s be honest here – there’s a huge audience for Osteen’s book because so much of life is challenging and difficult. Think about it: Buddhism and Hinduism are two entire religions whose entire goal is to escape this world of suffering and pain!

Scripture time and again teaches that we live in a sinful, fallen, broken world. As sinful people who live in a broken world, we shouldn’t be surprised when we endure seasons of great suffering, pain, and general difficulty. It’s not that there’s something wrong with how I’m thinking about things, and the problem isn’t even in the broken world I live in – I’m a part of the problem! This is simply biblical. There will be good day and bad days, and, as Christians, we don’t need to pretend otherwise or risk being people who lack faith in God’s power and goodness.

It’s in the midst of admitting this reality that we come to the place of Christian hope. My Christian hope is not found through declaring God’s promises over myself, but rather, through confessing my own sinfulness and complete inability to save myself, through confessing that I believe that Jesus Christ (who is God-made-flesh, the second Person of the Trinity) lived perfectly and died innocently on the Cross as my substitute, that Jesus rose from the grave in victory over sin and death – making it possible for me to share in the results of his victory.

Christian hope is completely built upon the sufferings of Jesus Christ and his victory over sin and death through the cross and empty tomb. If Jesus’ victory took him through rejection, suffering, and persecution then why should we expect a different fate? Did Jesus endure those things so that we wouldn’t have to? I think the lives of the Apostles and the story of Church History should be a clear and resounding “Duh, no!”

So please forgive me if I sound like a mean-spirited Christian kill-joy, but I’m very skeptical of this Christian Positivism. I’m not skeptical because Christians aren’t supposed to be filled with joy (indeed, they are – so much so that I’d encourage you to ask some hard questions about your Christian faith if there’s no joy in your life!), instead, I’m skeptical because God promises joy through suffering. (If I wasn’t testing out writing this blog post on an iPad and was more comfortable on it then I’d offer a collection of Scripture verses to back this up.)

Please don’t ask me to declare God’s promises over myself. Instead, I’d rather read the Bible and cling to the promises I read in there, and allow the Holy Spirit to strengthen my hope and joy and confidence in God’s faithfulness in the midst of tough days.

As a broken person who is being repaired bit-by-bit and day-by-day, I have great reasons to remember the solid hope and joy that comes through faith in Jesus Christ, but I need those most because I know how deeply I need them.