Matthew 6:5-15 // When You Pray

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Text: Matthew 6:5-15, CSB

 

Prayer for Illumination

Guide us, O Lord, by your Word and Your Holy Spirit, that in Your light we may see light, in Your truth find freedom, and in your will discover peace through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

Introduction

Last we started a series of messages on some spiritual disciplines. We started with fasting, this morning we’re going to talk about prayer, and next week we’ll talk about giving. We’ll break for Palm Sunday and Easter, and then we might revisit this idea of spiritual discipline off and on throughout the year.

 

  • Spiritual discipline comes from the idea that as you live you’re always being formed into something. No one lives in static. Every time you make a decision or a choice, it contributes to your formation. How do you interact with God? How do you interact with the people around you? What do you think of the Church? How do you view the world around you?
  • The answers to these questions reflect what you’re being formed into. Now, the ideal goal is for us to be formed into the image of Christ. That’s what Paul says in Romans 8 when he tells that we, as believers, have been predestined to be conformed into the image of Christ, and then Paul describes that process in detail in 2 Corinthians 3 when he says that as we continue to look to Christ we are transformed from glory to glory into His image.

 

These ideas of fasting, prayer, and giving help us reorient our lives in such a way that we are more aware of God’s presence and activity in the world and in our lives.

 

“Each moment of our days–our meals, our conversations with friends, our escapes, obsessions, romances, and distractions–is what we make of our lives. Our habits and rhythms of life are formative not only of who we are but how we know the world, including whether we know it to be a place where God is present or absent.[1]” ― Mike Cosper

 

So, as we look at how Jesus taught us to pray it’s clear that He intends for us to believe what we pray and act on it. We can’t pray for God’s forgiveness and then withhold forgiveness from someone else because as long as we withhold forgiveness, all we’re doing is building up bitterness in our soul.

 

  • People who remain in unforgiveness and bitterness do not get formed into the image of Christ unless God actually comes in and delivers them from that.

 

All that being said, I want us to look at our passage today under three headings:

 

  1. How We Shouldn’t Pray (v. 5, 7-8)
  2. How We Should Pray (v. 6, 9-13)
  3. How to Live What We Pray (v. 14-15)

How We Shouldn’t Pray (v. 5, 7-8)

“Whenever you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites, because they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by people. Truly I tell you, they have their reward… 7 When you pray, don’t babble like the Gentiles, since they imagine they’ll be heard for their many words. 8 Don’t be like them, because your Father knows the things you need before you ask him.”
– Matthew 6:5, 7-8, CSB

 

All throughout Matthew 6, Jesus is teaching this same principle of not letting people see our righteousness. At the beginning of the chapter, Jesus tells that when we give, we should do so so secretly that our left hand doesn’t even know what our right hand is doing.

 

In verses 16-18, our fasting should be private as well so that no one can tell we are fasting by looking at us.

 

  • Which brings me to one of my biggest pet peeves. I love Ash Wednesday services. I love what the partaking of ashes on our foreheads means. It means that we were made from the dust and to the dust we shall return, and that we are mourning over our sin. However, there are people who will wear their ash on their foreheads from Ash Wednesday out in public, and they’ll take Ash Wednesday selfies and post them on social media. They’re missing the point!
  • The point of Ash Wednesday is to mourn over your sin and wear your ashes as sign of your repentance. No one gets on social media and says, “Hey guys, I begged God for forgiveness because I’m self-centered and ignore the needy! #Blessed” Why would you do it for Ash Wednesday?

 

The point of doing these disciplines in private is because who you are behind closed doors is who you really are. We’ve always heard that integrity is doing the right thing when no one is looking. If that’s true, then how integral is our prayer life?

 

If we look at this portion of our passage, we’ll see that there’s two indictments against the hypocrites and the Gentiles. They love to be seen, and they love to be heard.

 

Jesus tells us that we shouldn’t be like them because when we seek to be seen by people, then we have our reward, and when we pray, we don’t need to use long, repetitive prayers in public because our Father in heaven already knows what we need before we ask Him.

 

  • I see verse 5 and verses 7 and 8 as parallel statements meaning that Jesus is pretty much saying the same thing twice, and if Jesus is repeating Himself then we need to listen, and listen good!

 

The temptation to want to be seen and heard by others is very real.

 

  • We like looking good. We like it when people see us as a spiritual authority. I loved when I would walk up to a group of people I knew at work or school and someone would say, “Logan knows a lot about the Bible, let’s ask him.”
  • However, if man’s glory is all we long for then when we get it, that’s our reward. Also, If man’s glory is all we long for then we’re settling for a lesser glory.
  • The Westminster Shorter Catechism tells us that man’s chief end (his highest purpose) is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever, and what happens sometimes we end up living as if we’re trying to glorify ourselves and enjoy ourselves forever.

 

What Jesus describes for us in verses 5-8 is nothing more than religious activity that’s rooted and grounded in the self.

 

A few weeks ago Brittany had mentioned something about a megachurch that she knew about in Texas, and I was curious so I looked them, and I knew their theology was off when the first thing I saw on their website was, “We’re all about people.”  If you claim to be apart of the body of Christ, then you better be all about Jesus and let Him deal with people, otherwise we’re essentially worshipping ourselves, we’re essentially praying to ourselves. And that’s the best we can do because as we saw last week when looked at Isaiah 58, God doesn’t hear these kinds of prayers.

 

  • So, what kind of prayers does He hear?

How We Should Pray (v. 6, 9-13)

“But when you pray, go into your private room, shut your door, and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” – Matthew 6:6, CSB

 

First of all, we should get alone with God. Jesus invites us into solitude because He doesn’t want us to be tempted to make this about ourselves. He wants us to be sure that this time is between us and Him.

 

  • I probably won’t devote an entire sermon to it, but one of the spiritual disciplines in addition to prayer, fasting, and giving is solitude.
  • Have you ever thought about solitude as a spiritual discipline? We have a lot of things around us that are calling out for our attention, and all the while God wants us to get away from everyone and everything around us for a little while and be alone, in a state of solitude, with Him. And when we do that, we can hear from him.

 

In 1 Kings 19, Elijah is on the run from Jezebel and he doesn’t really know what to do next. The angel of the Lord comes to him, ministers to him, and then tells him to go out and stand on the mountain, and then there was a great wind, and the Bible says that God wasn’t in the wind, and then there was a great fire, and the Bible says that God wasn’t in the fire either, but then there was still, small voice, and that’s where God was.

 

In an article that he wrote for Desiring God, David Mathis says:

 

“Getting away, quiet and alone, is no special grace on its own. But the goal is to create a context for enhancing our hearing from God in his word and responding back to him in prayer. Silence and solitude, then, are not direct means of grace in themselves, but they can grease the skids — like caffeine, sleep, exercise, and singing — for more direct encounters with God in his word and prayer.[2]– David Mathis

 

So, our place of prayer is one of solitude, but what about our pattern for prayer?

 

Look at verses 9-13. I’m going to read this from the King James Version because this is how I memorized it as a child.

 

“After this manner therefore pray ye: Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. 10 Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven. 11 Give us this day our daily bread. 12 And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. 13 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.” – Matthew 6:9-13, KJV

 

One of the challenges of preaching a text like this is that there’s so much here. If you were here last year, we did a study on the Lord’s Prayer with a series of lectures from Dr. Al Mohler. It took us 12 weeks to get through all of it because there’s just so much in there.

 

  • First of all, notice how Jesus tells us to address God – “Our Father which art in heaven.” One commentator notes that this is a prayer based on a familial relationship. Contrary to how we might normally think, the Jews would have been familiar with God being referred to as their Father, but they would rarely have called God “Father” in their prayers. For them, everything had to be formal.
  • Jesus teaches the disciplines that this God who created the infinite and expansive universe in which we live, is in fact, their father.

 

It kind of reminds be of a story I read about a Roman emperor who had come home from a battle.

 

As he was coming in through the gates, a little boy was seen burrowing his way through the cheering crowd to get to the emperor. Immediately a burly soldier scooped him up and scolded and said, “Hey kid, you can’t do that! Don’t you know who is in that chariot? That is the emperor!” The boy replied, “He may be your emperor—but he is my father.”

 

God is more than an emperor to us—the majestic, cosmic God, through Christ, has become our Father. And Jesus commands us to pray that way.[3]

 

As we continue to look at this prayer, it’s remarkable to see how God is displayed as grand and glorious, and yet He’s also presented as personal and approachable.

 

  • He’s our Father, but His name is holy.
  • He’s the king of the kingdom, but He also gives us our daily bread.

 

As Pastor Ron Hutchcraft put it, the Lord’s Prayer moves “from the galaxies to the groceries.” The Lord’s Prayer is long-term because we’re praying for a permanent and eternal kingdom, but it’s also short-term because we’re asking for bread for today. The God that we worship rules a kingdom that fills the cosmos and yet, He gives us what we need when we need it.

 

When we pray this prayer, not only are we asking God to fill our physical need for daily bread, but our spiritual need for forgiveness for our sins or our debts, our communal need to forgive others of their sins or debts, our moral need to be delivered from evil.

 

  • Any kind of need we have, our Father stands ready to fulfill according to His riches in glory as Paul eloquently says in Philippians 4.

 

Also, think about every single word in the Lord’s Prayer for just a second. Not once do you say, “I” “Me” or “My.” Jesus assumed that when this prayer was prayed, it would be done in community with other people or at the very least this prayer would be prayed for other people.

 

  • It’s very easy to be individualistic in 21st Century America. Ayn Rand, my favorite Libertarian philosopher, said that the individual is the world’s smallest minority, and to some degree I agree with that, but praying the Lord’s Prayer demands that we forget ourselves on an individual level and embrace the idea that we are a part of a collective group of people that has been established in the world by God Himself to be a covenant community.

 

We’re praying together for God’s kingdom to come and His will to be done.

We’re praying together for our daily needs to be met.

We’re praying together for forgiveness for ourselves even as we forgive others.

 

There’s power in praying together in community and I think we sometimes forget that.

 

  • I think I have a hard time praying spontaneous prayers in public because I’m so honest with God in my personal prayer life that I’m afraid that someone will get offended at something I say or something I might forget to say, but the beauty of prayer is that it’s not about us individually.
  • Prayer is about connecting with God, and when we connect with God corporately then we may not set the world on fire, but we will establish that our life as a church is not possible without God, and I think that makes a world of difference because there are many churches right here in the Bible belt some of them even small, rural churches like ours that act as if they could go on functioning as they do as if Jesus never rose from the dead and God never existed.
    • They come in sing a couple of songs, listen to someone talk about the good ol’ days and then they go home and eat fried chicken, never making a difference in the world around them. I pray that we never reach that place.
    • If the day should come, God forbid, that we have to close our doors, then there should be a noticeable void in the community. There are plenty of churches that close all the time, and no one in the city notices because they haven’t served their community in years.

 

And then finally, The Lord’s Prayer ends with an affirmation that the kingdom that we’re praying to come belongs to God – “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever.”

We should pray knowing that God is our Father, He will meet our needs, and the kingdom belongs to Him.

 

Of course, all of this being said, we can’t disconnect any of this from how we live when we leave our prayer closet. You’re gonna have to get up from the altar sometime. You’ve got work to do, groceries to buy, and trash to take out.

You can’t stay at church forever. Monday is coming. So, how do you connect what happens in your prayer closet to what happens when you leave your prayer closet?

 

  • All throughout the Old Testament (particularly in Isaiah, Amos, and Malachi), God’s people would go into the temple and worship, and then go out and treat other people like garbage. They would oppress their workers, and they would ignore the marginalized as we saw last week in Isaiah 58.
  • And then Jesus comes along in Matthew 23 and tells the Pharisees that they’re tithing off their spice rack, but they have neglected the weightier matters of the law like justice, mercy, and faithfulness.
    • As we’re getting through Lent and approaching Easter what I would challenge us to do in addition to our normal Bible reading is to do a slow read through Matthew 23, and see if Jesus might be speaking to us the same way that He was speaking to the Pharisees, maybe we’ve neglected justice, mercy, and faithfulness in our own lives.
    • “I tithe on the gross and not the net.” Okay, but do you love your neighbor who is a staunch Democrat?

How to Live What We Pray (v. 14-15)

In Matthew 6:14-15, Jesus demands on no uncertain terms that if we’re going to come before God and ask for forgiveness for our sins and debts then we had better be darn sure willing to forgive someone else’s sins and debts.

 

  • We know that God is a God of justice and mercy, but we seem to want mercy for ourselves and justice for people who have offended us, but that doesn’t fly in God’s kingdom.

 

“For if you forgive others their offenses, your heavenly Father will forgive you as well. 15 But if you don’t forgive others, your Father will not forgive your offenses.” – Matthew 6:14-15, CSB

 

This is pretty straight forward. Our entire identity as children of God is predicated on forgiveness. We can’t rightly claim to be someone whose whole life is predicated on forgiveness and then withhold forgiveness because we’ve been offended.

 

  • That’s not to say that forgiveness is easy. Sometimes it’s a very difficult and painful process, but there’s never a time when forgiveness is optional.

 

Part of reason I think we wrestle with forgiving someone is because we believe, in some way, that we’re hurting them. We’re afraid that if we forgive them then that will just enable them to keep on hurting us or hurting other people, but in the end, all we’re doing is hurting ourselves.

 

It reminds me of a little boy who was sitting on a park bench and it was obvious that he was in pain. A man walked by and asked him what was wrong. The young boy said, “I’m sitting on a bumble bee.” The man urgently asked, “Then why don’t you get up?” The boy replied, “Because I figure I’m hurting him more than he is hurting me!”

 

I think that’s how we handle forgiveness, and Jesus tells us in these two verses that that kind of behavior isn’t acceptable for a people whose lives are not possible without forgiveness.

 

  • Now, think about that for just a second. Your life would not be possible without forgiveness. Think about everyone in your life that you interact with on a regular basis. Your friends, your family, your co-workers. Imagine if nobody forgave you. Ever. The first time you messed up, you were done. You would go through life with people hating you.
  • Imagine if God never forgave you. The good news is that God in Christ has forgiven us, but sometimes I wonder if we don’t take that for granted.
    • When we try to live life on our own terms, then we’ll always be prone to failure because there will be a gaping void in our souls, and because there’s a gaping void, we will try to fill it up with everything other than God, and then that’s when we sin against God and sin against everybody else in our life, and then if no one forgave us, we would just be stuck.

 

If you don’t get anything from this message, just listen loudly and clearly: your life isn’t possible without forgiveness, and when you live in forgiveness, then you’re free to forgive others.

 

If your prayers are patterned after this prayer in Matthew 6, then this how you live what you pray.

 

Conclusion

The point of this entire passage to teach that how pray matters, and how live after we leave our prayer closets matter just as much. Let’s pray.

 

Closing Prayer

Heavenly Father, we thank You for allowing us to open Your word and hear what You have to say to us. We ask You to forgive where we have failed You, and let us never take Your forgiveness for granted. If there is anyone here who hasn’t yet known Your forgiveness, I pray that You would let Your love be known to them in special way. In the name Your Son, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.

___________________________

  1. Cosper, Mike. Recapturing the Wonder: Transcendent Faith in a Disenchanted World. IVP Books, an Imprint of InterVarsity Press, 2017.
  2. “Take a Break from the Chaos.” Desiring God, 20 Mar. 2019, http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/take-a-break-from-the-chaos.
  3. “Search.” Center for Excellence in Preaching, cep.calvinseminary.edu/non-rcl-starters/matthew-6-5-15/.

Jesus: The Ultimate Example of Biblical Manhood?

The question was first posed when I read a Twitter thread asking questions about biblical manhood and womanhood, particularly as relates to being like Jesus. Soon afterwards, I heard someone assert that Jesus is the ultimate example biblical manhood. And these things got me thinking…

Christians are called to follow the example of Christ in some ways. We are not God and we are not called to die to save humanity from sin, but we are called to Christlikeness. In 1 Corinthians 11:1, the apostle Paul says, “Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ.” And again, Romans 8:29 says, “For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son.”

In some ways, it makes sense to say that Jesus could be described as the ultimate example of biblical manhood: Jesus was, of course, the perfect human, and he was a man. Thus it seems reasonable to tell men to follow the example of Christ as a way to live out their maleness in a healthy and holy way.

However, there are at least two potential problems. First, nowhere in the Bible are men in particular called to emulate the example of Christ as an example of godly masculinity. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it is wrong to do so, but it’s important to note that the Bible itself does not make this call. Second, if men are to follow Christ’s example as the ultimate example of biblical masculinity, then who are women to look to as the ultimate example of biblical femininity? To ask it in a different way, if women follow Christ, will they not be walking in obedience? Are women to follow Christ only in some ways?

I don’t have answers to these questions (yet), but I do think it’s worth considering. I’m curious if you all have any thoughts on this.

Here’s what I do know: Jesus Christ, God become human, is not primarily our example; he is primarily our Savior. He knew neither sinful nature nor particular sins, yet he (in some mysterious way) took on our sin and the punishment we deserved for it, so that we could, by faith, receive the gift of the righteousness of God. 2 Corinthians 5:21 says, “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.That is the most important thing to know about Jesus.

And secondly, we are called, once we are saved, to live out our new identity as ones who are forgiven and adopted children of God. This is possible because of Christ in us, making us new. And it is reasonable in light of the great work of salvation God has joyfully wrought for those who trust him.

So let us all–male and female–press on to know, love, imitate, and serve our Savior today and every day.

Isaiah 58:1-12 // The Fast That God Desires

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Text: Isaiah 58:1-12, CSB

Prayer for Illumination

Almighty and Everlasting God, let us feast with gladness upon Your holy word that it may give us strength to love You and love our neighbor. In the name of Your Son, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.

Introduction

I never knew my great-grandfather personally. He went to be with the Lord when I was just 6 months old, but I’ve heard many stories about him and about his character.

One of the things that I hear about a lot is that when supper was on the table and there was only one piece of chicken or one piece of cornbread or one piece of whatever left, he would never take it. He always wanted someone else to have it, and I think that attitude of self-denial for the sake of others is what God is commanding here in Isaiah 58. Peter Leithart notes:

“For many throughout church history, fasting is bound up with hostility to matter and the body. We refrain from bodily pleasures of food and drink to train our souls in disembodied life.

That’s not biblical. The biblical fast, as Isaiah 58 puts it, is to share food with the hungry and clothing with the naked. The true fast gives good things away to those who don’t have them.


Biblical fasting, then, assumes the goodness of material things, and the propriety of pleasure. After all, if food and drink and clothing are evil, why would we want to share them? Isaiah’s fast assumes that creation is so good that we want everyone to have a piece of it.[1]

What we have in this passage is a distinctly different message about fasting than the one we hear on mainstream Christian media.

  • There’s very little teaching and preaching about fasting anymore, but when we do hear it mentioned, it’s not spoken of as a way to be more devoted to God, or as a way to refrain from our own resources so that we can share them with others.
  • Instead we hear it spoken of like a glorified hunger strike to “earn God’s favor” or to get God to “release” blessings into our lives as some false teachers on TBN or Daystar would tell us.

 

However, these people that Isaiah is addressing would probably fall right in line with all of that nonsense on mainstream Christian media because if we’re being honest, our human nature hasn’t changed much since Isaiah’s day.

 

  • Our sinful nature would like to believe that we can manipulate the blessings of God with a hunger strike and call it a fast, and believe that it will be acceptable, but this in no way resembles the fast that God has chosen.

 

As we look at the text, I want us to break it down in four parts:

  • V. 1 – God’s Command to His Prophet
  • V. 2-5 – God’s Accusation Against His People
  • V. 6-7 – God’s Instruction To His People
  • V. 8-14 – God’s Promises to His People

God’s Command to His Prophet (v. 1)

“Cry out loudly, don’t hold back! Raise your voice like a trumpet. Tell my people their transgression and the house of Jacob their sins.” – Isaiah 58:1, CSB

 

We need men and women in our day with a prophetic voice who will cry loudly and not hold back when it comes to the issue of sin.

  • Sin separates us from God, and to be separated from God is a fearful thing, and ultimately I think the reason we don’t see a lot of pastors talking about sin the way the Bible does is because they don’t believe God or they don’t believe God will keep His word in regards to all of the warnings that He gives concerning sin.

 

Ezekiel 18:1 is very clear: the soul that sins shall die. People are dead in their sins, marching aimlessly towards death, hell, and destruction and the only way they’ll be made alive is if someone cares enough to proclaim what God has spoken.

 

  • It’s a sad thing when we allow people into our pulpits who don’t believe that heaven and hell, life and death, salvation and damnation aren’t high priority issues, but I’ll tell you what is: winning at life, living your best life now, making sure every day is a Friday.
    • You can win in this life, and lose in the next life.

“Whoever tries to make his life secure will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it.” – Luke 17:33, CSB

Losing doesn’t sound like a bad idea. Now, does it?

This is the whole reason that Isaiah is commanded to cry aloud and not hold back. God’s people are trying to fast try to do all these acts of piety and religion, not for God, not for others, but for themselves.

 

  • They’re giving things away to get an ego boost in return.
  • They’re esteeming their lives and their egos of more worth or value than the people they’re supposed to be helping, and as a result, God doesn’t hear them!
    • It’s not as if God has a hearing problem. It’s not as if God actually can’t hear what’s going on, but God refuses to entertain the prayers of those who refuse to repent.

 

That’s why Jesus tells us that if we’re giving a gift to God, and we remember that someone has something against us, we can’t pretend like everything is okay. We have to leave our gift at the altar, make things right with our brother, and then give the gift. (Matthew 5:23-26)

That’s why Peter says in 1 Peter 3:7, that if a husband doesn’t treat his wife with honor and understanding, then God will not hear his prayers.

 

God isn’t going to entertain the prayers of people who think they’re going to get some kind of divine pat on the head for being good little boys and girls. Instead, God brings an accusation against them.

God’s Accusations Against His People (v. 2-5)

“They seek me day after day and delight to know my ways, like a nation that does what is right and does not abandon the justice of their God. They ask me for righteous judgments; they delight in the nearness of God.” – Isaiah 58:2, CSB

 

If we just look at verse 2, then they appear to be doing right, but as we continuing reading, we see that all of this is just for show.

 

“Why have we fasted, but you have not seen? We have denied ourselves, but you haven’t noticed!” – Isaiah 58:3a, CSB

 

They want God to be impressed with them.

 

  • “Look, God! Can’t you see all we’ve done for you!?”

 

And this is God’s response:

 

“Look, you do as you please on the day of your fast, and oppress all your workers. 4 You fast with contention and strife to strike viciously with your fist. You cannot fast as you do today, hoping to make your voice heard on high. 5 Will the fast I choose be like this: A day for a person to deny himself, to bow his head like a reed, and to spread out sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast and a day acceptable to the Lord?” – Isaiah 58:3b-5, CSB

 

The accusation from God comes in three parts:

 

  1. They do as they please on their fast day.

They’re going through the motions. They don’t view their fasting as an opportunity to seek God. Instead they’re going about their day as they normally would, they’re committing the same old sins and transgressions that they normally would. They’re oppressing the same people that they normally would, but by golly, they’re in the temple every time the doors are open.

 

  • They make life harder for their workers.

 

In the temple, they’re worshipping, they’re leaving their offerings, and they’re making sure everyone knows that they’re fasting, but then they go to work and make life harder on the people around them.

“During Isaiah’s time, the temple in Jerusalem was standing room only. No one missed a service. They sang psalms – old ones, new ones, all kinds of psalms. They said prayers and gave offerings. What they did not do was let worship trouble their consciences. If they kept their distance from God, then they could also keep their distance from God’s children. They did not want to make connections between their worship and their neighbors. They ignored the poor and everyone else they wanted to ignore.[2]” – Brett Younger

 

Think about that one line that Younger said out of that quote though – “What they did not do was let worship bother their consciences.”

 

  • How many times have we done that? How many times have we refused to allow ourselves to be convicted, and we just shoved it off by saying, “Oh, that preacher is just trying to make me feel bad. He’s just using scare tactics.”
    • All the while, God’s word is doing it’s work on us, it’s piercing our soul and spirit, it’s dividing our bones and marrow and we just squirm in our seats and hope it’s over with, but the reality of the situation is that letting God’s word work on us is the best thing we could do.
    • If you take a 5 year old to get a shot, they’re going to sit there and squirm and probably cry because they’re afraid of the pain, but the truth is that the best they could do is just sit there and let it happen. It’s the same way with us. The best thing we could when God’s word pierces us is just sit there and let it happen because we’ll come out better on the other side. We’ll be more conformed to the image of Christ than we were before.

 

 

  • They think they deserve to be heard.

 

“You cannot fast as you do today, hoping to make your voice heard on high.”
– Isaiah 58:4b, CSB

 

Think about what Jesus says in Matthew 6 about the hypocrites and the Gentiles.

 

“When you pray, don’t babble like the Gentiles, since they imagine they’ll be heard for their many words.” – Matthew 6:7, CSB

 

  • When we think that we have a right to be heard because of what we do, then we won’t be heard.
  • A couple of weeks ago, Kirk preached on Joshua 7 about Achan storing gold from the enemy in his tent after God had spoken the people and told them to destroy everything.
    • We can’t expect the fruit of obedience when we pursue disobedience.

 

The accusation against God’s people is clear: they have an entitlement problem. They want to believe that they can be rewarded by worshipping God in the temple, and making life harder for their neighbors in the workplace.

 

  • When you’re in a place of authority over other people, it’s easy to let your ego get in the way, it’s easy to allow yourself to believe that you are better than those that you’re over because, after all, you’re in this position, and they’re not, but as far as God is concerned everyone’s on the same playing field.
  • Think about the people we interact with on daily basis – the guy working the drive-thru at McDonald’s, the cashier at the gas station, the electronics associate at Walmart. Think about what happens when they make a common mistake.
    • Do we get out of shape about it, threaten to call corporate get some fired? Maybe not. Do we shoot them dirty looks and wish no one else was around so we could give them a piece of our mind? Maybe. Or are we patient with them because God has been patient with us.

 

So, God’s accusation against His people are clear, but so are His instructions.

 

God’s Instruction To His People (v. 6-10)

“Isn’t this the fast I choose: to break the chains of wickedness, to untie the ropes of the yoke, to set the oppressed free, and to tear off every yoke? 7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, to bring the poor and homeless into your house, to clothe the naked when you see him, and not to ignore your own flesh and blood?” – Isaiah 58:6-7, CSB

 

The fast that God chooses does five things things:

  1. Sets Free Those Who are Bound (v. 6)
    1. Verse 6 is a picture of freedom – breaking chains, tearing off yokes, untying ropes, etc. We know that Jesus is in the business of setting people free, and if that’s the case, then we as Jesus’ people should also be in the business of setting people free.
  2. Feeds Those Who Are Hungry – “share your bread with the hungry” (v. 7)
  3. Shelters the Homeless – “bring the poor and homeless into your house”
    (v. 7)
  4. Clothes the Naked (v. 7)
  5. Makes You Available to People – “not to ignore your own flesh and blood” (v. 7)

 

Fasting isn’t simply about giving up food, it’s about giving up our resources and rights for the benefits of others.

 

  • The most powerful example of this is Jesus Himself.

 

“Adopt the same attitude as that of Christ Jesus, 6 who, existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God as something to be exploited. 7 Instead he emptied himself by assuming the form of a servant, taking on the likeness of humanity. And when he had come as a man, 8 he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death— even to death on a cross.” – Philippians 2:5-8, CSB

 

We look at this picture of Jesus emptying Himself, becoming a servant, dying on a cross, and we might be tempted to think that he went through all that so that we wouldn’t have to go through all of that, but that’s not the case.

 

“Jesus didn’t die on the cross simply so that we wouldn’t have to, but he died on the cross so that we would take up our cross and follow Him.” – Dallas Willard

 

  • When you take up your cross and follow Jesus, then you go to die with Him.

 

Think about what Paul says in Galatians 2:20.

 

“I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” – Galatians 2:20, CSB

 

Think about each word and each phrase of that verse. Paul is saying very clearly that He died with Christ.

 

Back in Romans 6:3, Paul uses the same language of death and resurrection when he says that all of us who were baptized in Christ was baptized into His death, and we were baptized into His death so that we could be raised into newness of life.

 

  • The more you follow Christ, the more you lean into Christ, the more die to yourself, the more you do those things, the more you are living in the newness of life.

 

The more you find yourself living in the newness of life, the more you realize that you don’t need the material things that you thought you needed.

 

  • Yes, you need a house, but maybe you don’t need a 5 bedroom, 4 bath, 3 story house.
  • Yes, you need a vehicle, but maybe you don’t need a 2019 Lincoln Town Car.

Fasting and celebrating Lent is an opportunity to examine what you can afford to live without and share with others, but it’s also an opportunity to see what has a hold on us.

 

“More than any other discipline, fasting reveals the things that control us. This is a wonderful benefit to the true disciple who longs to be transformed into the image of Jesus Christ. We cover up what is inside of us with food and other things.[3]” – Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline

 

Once you see what’s controlling you, once you see what you can live without, then God makes a promise in verses 8-10.

 

  • It’s interesting to me that God isn’t simply calling us to a fast, He’s calling us to genuineness. He’s calling us to honesty.
    • These people that God is talking to may be able to live without food for a while, but they can’t live without power. They can’t live without prestige. They can’t live without privilege, and God says that if you really want to fast, then giving up your food isn’t good enough, you’ve got to give up these things too, and when you do, you get the benefits and promises listed in verses 8-10.

God’s Promises to His People (v. 8-14)

“Then your light will appear like the dawn, and your recovery will come quickly. Your righteousness will go before you, and the Lord’s glory will be your rear guard. 9 At that time, when you call, the Lord will answer; when you cry out, he will say, ‘Here I am.’ If you get rid of the yoke among you, the finger-pointing and malicious speaking, 10 and if you offer yourself to the hungry, and satisfy the afflicted one, then your light will shine in the darkness, and your night will be like noonday. 11 The Lord will always lead you, satisfy you in a parched land, and strengthen your bones. You will be like a watered garden and like a spring whose water never runs dry. 12 Some of you will rebuild the ancient ruins; you will restore the foundations laid long ago; you will be called the repairer of broken walls, the restorer of streets where people live.” – Isaiah 58:8-12, CSB

 

Verses 8-12 in this chapter is a picture of how God intends for us as His people to live.

 

We are to be a people who fill in the broken gaps of the world with our love and kindness, specifically the same love and kindness that God has shown us in Christ.

 

The best illustration I can think of how this might work is that there’s a giant pot hole in the road that goes to and from our apartment in Lamar. That pothole is an area where the road is broken and in need of repair, and the best thing the city could do is fill that part of the road with new asphalt.

  • Well, as the church when we see brokenness, we need to do what we can repair it. When we give to the women’s shelter, when we give to the Main Street Mission, when we get a motel room for a homeless couple, we’re filling a need, we’re repairing the broken walls as it says in verse 12.

Conclusion

Fasting isn’t simply about subtracting from your life, it’s about adding to your life in place of what you subtract.

 

  • You fast from food so that you can add worship, prayer, and devotion.
  • You take time away from normal things that might bring you pleasure (that may not be wrong in and of themselves) so that you can seek a higher pleasure only found in God.

 

In the late 1700’s the Puritan preacher, Thomas Chalmers, preached one of his most famous sermons, “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection,” and the whole idea of this sermon was that it isn’t enough to simply abstain from sin, from worldly pleasures, from the love of the world, we have to replace those things with something else, namely a desire for God.

 

The question I want to leave us with this morning, is do we desire God?

 

If you fear that you do not desire God enough, and I think that’s a healthy fear to have, then you can pray, “God, increase my desire for You!” And that’s a prayer I believe He will honor.

 

  • It’s like the man who said, “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.” We can say, “Lord, I love You, but I want to love You and desire You more.” Let’s pray.

Closing Prayer

Heavenly Father, we hear these words from Isaiah 58, and we are convicted to the very core of our being because we are guilty, but by Your grace, You set the guilty free. We are like the woman caught in adultery, except we’re caught in selfishness, greed, pride, lust, and every other vice and fault we can think of, and like that woman, You tell us, “I do not condemn you, go and sin no more,” and that’s what we want. We don’t want to continue in our sin. We want freedom, true freedom that only comes from You. Set us free to love You and serve You. Set us free from carnal pleasure and desires. Give us a desire love You and love one another. Give us the grace and strength to love those that seem unlovable so that they can come to know You and be apart of Your family that we call the Church. We ask all of these things in the name of Your Son, Jesus Christ, who taught us to love one another. Amen.

____________________________

  1. Leithart, Peter, and Peter Leithart. “Fasting and Pleasure.” Patheos, Patheos, 6 Sept. 2017, www.patheos.com/blogs/leithart/2008/12/fasting-and-pleasure/.
  2. Brett Younger, “Homiletical Perspective: Isaiah 58:1-9a (9b-12),” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 1, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010).
  3. Foster, Richard J. Celebration of Discipline: the Path to Spiritual Growth. HarperOne, 2018.

A Life Made Possible: A Review of ‘Hannah’s Child’ by Stanley Hauerwas

Hannah's Child Review

I don’t know that I could rightly identify as a Hauerwasian. I am a Calvinist, and I am quite happy to be in that camp. However, I knew he was the real deal when I read a quote that’s often attributed to him – “Jesus is Lord, everything else is bullsh*t.” When I first read that I knew I had to, at the very least, discover his background. After all, what is it that would cause him to such a conclusion and state it in the way that he did?

Hauerwas is a Texan by birth and the son of a bricklayer by trade. Through the course of certain life events (I’ll let you read the book to find out what those events are) he would end up in Divinity School not even knowing whether or not he was a Christian.

Maybe I’m wrong in what I’m about to say or maybe I’m just reading myself too much into his story, but it seems to me that in this book, Hauerwas not only takes us on his journey of faith but also provides an often critical commentary on Christendom in America from his raising at Pleasant Mound Methodist Church in rural Texas to his current home at the Church of the Holy Family in North Carolina, and everywhere in between.

For example, here’s an excerpt from Chapter 1.

“Pleasant Mound Methodist was Methodist, but like most folks in that area we were really Baptist,

(As the pastor of a Cumberland Presbyterian Church in Arkansas, I feel that deeply. 😏)

which meant that even though you had been baptized and become a member of the church, you still had the be “saved.” Baptism and membership were Sunday morning events. Saving was for Sunday nights. Sunday night was an hour hymn sing, a time for “personal prayer” at the altar rail, a forty-five minute to an hour sermon, and then a call to the altar for those convicted of their sin. If you came to the altar, it was assumed that you struck up a new relationship with God that was somehow equivalent to being saved. I wanted to be saved, but I did not think you should fake it.”

With this simple paragraph, Hauerwas puts into perspective and reveals that how we view corporate church gatherings in the South is just plain weird. (After all, the early church didn’t have hour long hymn singings from their Heavenly Highway Hymnal in the first few centuries. 😏)

As we follow Hauerwas up into the north (or as we might call it “Yankee territory”) he seems more at home in the churches in the north where ideas like church membership and the sacraments are treated with more gravity. Although Pleasant Mound (later named Pleasant Grove) would always be a special place, sometimes the place you call ‘home’ changes.

I can relate to that. My grandfather was the pastor at an independent Full Gospel church in a small town called Blackwell. Blackwell was known for it’s bar and two liquor stores. Hardly anyone knew that there were churches there, and honestly, I think that the churches were to blame for their own obscurity. God knows there was no shortage of people there to love and share Jesus with.

However, that little church was my home. The church disbanded and we left, but to this day, I still take drives to see the building and reflect on that wonderful place that I called home.

One of the most remarkable things that I was able to take from this book is how Hauerwas dealt with his first wife, Anne. His wife had some severe mental sicknesses that caused her to be irrational and often caused her to go into fits where she believed that she was in love with other men. Eventually, this led to their divorce, but for the time that they were married it was amazing to read about how gracefully and patiently he dealt with her. I think the reason that he put up with her behavior as long as he did was because they had a son together, and he was trying to keep the family together for his sake.

As someone who has been close to someone with severe mental disorders, his experience has informed my own, and has been a helpful guide for me in dealing with people who have mental illnesses but refuse help or treatment. Although, I don’t think Hauerwas would believe his work to be instructional, it truly has been instructional for me.

One other thing I would like to note about this work before I close out this review is his treatment of the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001.

“I knew we were in deep theological trouble as soon as politicians and commentators made the claim that September 11th had forever changed the world. Most Americans, Christian and non-Christian, quickly concluded that September 11th was a decisive event. That was exactly the problem. For Christians, the decisive change in the world, the apocalyptic event that transformed how all other events are to be understood, occurred in A.D. 33. Having spent decades reading Yoder and four years writing the Gifford Lectures, it was clear to me that September 11th had to be considered in the light of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.”

Time magazine would ask Hauerwas to write an article about the war on terror for their February 23, 2003 issue. For context: Stanley Hauerwas is an advocate of Christian non-violence. This means all war, from his perspective, is evil and can in no way be considered just so his perspective would be an altogether different one from many of the Falwell’s, Graham’s, and Jeffress’s of the nation who proudly made sure their voice was heard.

Here’s an excerpt from his article.

“G. K. Chesterton once observed that America is a nation with the soul of a church. Bush’s use of religious rhetoric seems to confirm this view. None of this is good news for Christians, however, because it tempts us to confuse Christianity with America. As a result, Christians fail to be what God has called us to be: agents of truthful speech in a world of mendacity. The identification of cross and flag after September 11th needs to be called what it is: idolatry. We are often told that America is a great country and that Americans are a good people. I am willing to believe that Americans are a good people. I am willing to believe that Americans wants to be good, but goodness requires that we refuse to lie to ourselves and our neighbors about the assumed righteousness of our cause. That the world is dangerous should not be surprising news to Christians who are told at the beginning of Lent that we are dust. If Christians could remember that we have not been created to live forever, we might be able to help ourselves and our non-Christian brothers and sisters to speak more modestly and, thus, more truthfully and save ourselves from the alleged necessity of a war against “evil.”

Although I’m not certain if I would call myself a pacifist or an advocate of Christian non-violence, I can definitely sympathize with his arguments, and when I read this paragraph I gave it a loud and hearty “AMEN!”

Hauerwas concludes his book by saying that his life was made possible by people who prayed for him. I find that statement to be true in my own life. Like Hauerwas, my life is a result of the prayers of my family. I don’t think I would be who I am had not my grandparents prayed for God work in and through my life.

So, would I recommend this book? If you don’t have the patience to wade through talk about the academic politics, then run far, far away, but you would like to read a compelling story about a theologian finding himself in the world of theology and academia, then by all means, read. I thoroughly enjoyed this work, but I also know that not everyone enjoys the same things that I do.

But if you decide to try it out and can’t wade through the politics and academic language, then just read the first two chapters, and then jump to the back of the book and read the last three chapters. I promise, you’ll get something positive out of it.

 

On Wearing Your Ash for a Hat

Ashhat

When I start this discussion, I want to be very clear. I love Ash Wednesday, and I love the season of Lent. (If you grew up under an evangelical rock like I did and are unfamiliar with these terms then here’s a good article to get you started, and here’s another one.)

Ash Wednesday and Lent are times when we can reflect on our sin and brokenness, and be thankful for God’s grace working in and through our lives to conform us to the image of Christ.

However, something I’m not a big fan of is people who go to an early Ash Wednesday service in the morning or maybe they receive ashes sometime around noon and then they wear their ashes on their forehead in public all day long.

I think receiving the ashes is a helpful reminder that we are sinful creatures that deserve death, and the ashes remind us that we will return to the dust from which we came. However, wearing them in public shows people that you’re celebrating Lent, and if people know that you’re celebrating Lent, then they know that you are fasting from something.

Jesus very plainly tells us in His Sermon on the Mount that we shouldn’t make our righteousness obvious to people.

“Whenever you fast, don’t be gloomy like the hypocrites. For they make their faces unattractive so that their fasting is obvious to people. Truly I tell you, they have their reward. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that your fasting isn’t obvious to others but to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” – Matthew 6:16-18, CSB

 

If we have to practice our righteousness before others in order for it to be valid, then we prove that our righteousness is not genuine, and if our righteousness is not genuine, then it’s not a righteousness that comes from Christ.

In Isaiah 58, God speaks through Isaiah to condemn the way that God’s people were fasting. They were giving up their food just fine, but they couldn’t give up their power, their greed, or their mistreatment of others. They finally ask in Isaiah 58:3, “Why have we fasted, but you have not seen? We have denied ourselves, but you haven’t noticed!”

And then God gives them the answer: “Look, you do as you please on the day of your fast, and oppress all your workers. You fast with contention and strife to strike viciously with your fist. You cannot fast as you do today, hoping to make your voice heard on high.”(Isaiah 58:3-4, CSB)

In The Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster notes that when we fast we really become aware of the things that have a stronghold on us. (I’m paraphrasing.) If we can give up food, but we can’t give up power, privilege, or prestige, then what do we really live off of? Where does our life come from? Are we genuinely seeking God or are we just wearing our ash for a hat?

From Isaiah 58 to Matthew 6, and even up to now, people haven’t changed that much, but God’s word to them still remains the same. If we’re going to fast during Lent, we should do so biblically, and to fast biblically is to fast discreetly, and we should give up the things that matter – our wills, our desires, and our own righteousness.

Instead, we should seek after God’s will, God’s desires, and God’s righteousness. Do we care about what God cares about? Do we want the same things that God wants? Lent is the perfect time to pray, fast, open our Bibles, and listen to Him.

Don’t Trust Someone Who Says They Have a Perfect Understanding of Scripture (because they don’t)

DTA

A thousand apologies in advance if this post is disjointed, rambling, or otherwise incoherent. Due to a busy schedule, it has been literally months in the making.

I actually did not come up with the wording of the title of this article. It was Phil Johnson of Grace To You who said it in a radio broadcast when talking about a young man he was in correspondence with, who made this very claim. The young man said to Brother Johnson that he was writing a book about such and such, and he disagreed with him. He denied any need for correction and rejected it when offered to him. After all, he did say he has a perfect understanding of Scripture. I say he was writing about such and such because I can’t quite remember what Brother Johnson said it was about, but apparently, he was blatantly wrong, and not only that, he was trying to publish how wrong he was on this certain doctrine to the entire world. He was (and it is assumed, still is) wrong at the top of his lungs. I suppose a good alternate title for this article could be– “An Exhortation to Humility in Interpreting and discussing Scripture”

First: Two Extremes

Before the exhortation should come some context would be helpful. There are two extremes, or ditches, one can fall into as it relates to scripture interpretation. Both are ungodly and worldly. One is to be so very theologically or interperetively “humble” that you are squishy. The other is to be so very dogmatic that you are right, and there is no possibility you could be wrong, so hang any counsel from anyone else, especially if they are in disagreement. To say they are ditches or extremes, though makes it sound as if the correct view is somewhere in between.

It is, and it isn’t. Practically, the correct view is between the soft and hard view. However, there is no in between when it is pride and a false humility, which is also pride. Both are the same sin. In practice, it isn’t the road in between. It is a different road entirely.

The Theological and Doctrinal Jelly Sack

The “soft” approach, or false humility, is perhaps the worse of these two approaches to treating scripture, and subsequently, theology and doctrine. I say it is the worse of the two because it is the most disingenuous of the two. It purports humility, but practically is very proud.

This approach is often utilized by theological liberals and socinians. Since liberals are supposed to be the “nice guys,” it is necessary that in exercising pride, they be as deceptive as possible. The fact of the matter is that all humans are savage beasts, whether conservative or liberal. However, this deceptive approach baits people in by sounding very nice and open to everything, while espousing dangerous teachings and their teachers who are either hirelings or, worse yet, ravenous wolves. They believe abandoning standards communicated clearly in scripture is actually the biblical standard. They believe that since they are following the spirit of Jesus’ ministry, the actual words of Christ Himself doesn’t really matter. Besides, scripture was written by men, and is not as reliable as “personal revelation.” Such is the case when covenants and confessions and creeds are abandoned in the name of “diversity.”

I say hang their notion of diversity. We need unity.

The Theological and Doctrinal Fence Post

The “hard” approach, much like a brick or stone wall, is like a fence post (fence posts cannot be convinced of much).  I only use this term because in the self aggrandizing minds of these folks, brick and stone walls may connote unmoving strength, so let’s call them fence posts. They aren’t just any fence post though, lest they think they’re being compared to a good, strong corner post, used to stretch a six strand barbed wire fence. They are rotton wooden posts that aren’t even good for holding up any wire. They are utterly worthless, they stand alone, and if you argue with one, you won’t get anywhere at all.

This kind is so proud, they don’t even make an attempt at hiding their pride behind a lie. They openly and adamantly reject anyone offering a different insight than their own, especially if someone is biblically seeking to correct them in one of their faults.

These are the people who would claim perfect understanding of scripture, or at least claim the capability to potentially gain a perfect understanding in this life. They can argue using Scripture, though only by accepting the verses they can agree with, while wrenching verses out of context they find impossible to reconcile with their flawed views. Oddly enough, these might also abandon covenants, confessions, and creeds. Some are apt to write their own doctrinal statement, rejecting a biblical confession belonging to their own church, association, or denomination. I’m not knocking writing a confession of one’s own, that’s how they were done in the past, either by writing a confession as a new ministry or group of churches, as a person in bonds of persecution answering accusers, or as a summary or clarification of  a previous confession.  If you’re working with something that is already good, though, why change it? These confessions help us to submit to the authority of our church and to the authority of scripture, not of our vain minds. Ideally, they should eliminate pride in oneself.

And Now, the Feature Presentation.

“1LORD, my heart is not haughty, nor mine eyes lofty: neither do I exercise myself in great matters, or in things too high for me. 2Surely I have behaved and quieted myself, as a child that is weaned of his mother: my soul is even as a weaned child. 3Let Israel hope in the LORD from henceforth and for ever.” Psalm 131

To begin, perhaps a bit of context is nessecary. This psalm is one of a series of psalms called psalms of ascent, or psalms of degrees. People. They were sang by pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem for the feasts, or by the worshippers and priests on their way up the steps of the temple. Considering the length of each psalm in the group, they were also likely psalms taught to children at home, or as devotions for such events as approaching Jerusalem and the Temple.

This psalm in particular focuses on child-likeness (not childishness), and teaches a very important attitude to have before God and man. It is a statement of child like humility. It instills this attitude in children who are learning these psalms. It is a proclamation to those taking their families to Jerusalem for the feast. Perhaps more importantly, for the men in the priesthood, it showed them the same as they approached the temple.

We are told likewise elsewhere in scripture, to be meek like children. This meekness surely doesn’t include a high opinion of oneself. In fact, I believe that you’ll find some of the highest level theologians never really consider themselves masters, but always students of the scriptures.

I, in no way, want to be the one to wear a badge labeled “Mr. Humble,” so I’ll just say I know a guy who can wear that badge and I try to be like him. There are issues that are clear in scripture that are fundamental to the Christian Faith, which only heretics deny. There are also things like baptism and eschatology that are also clear, which have no bearing on salvation. I suggest these things are important, and would affect which church I’m a member of, but it’s okay if a Presbyterian is wrong on this, or if the non-denominational (Baptist crossed with Assemblies of God) is wrong on that. What is important is that we agree on the basic doctrines that make Christianity what it is, whether you’re a Calvinist, Arminian, or Molinist.

To Conclude…

When it comes to doctrinal issues, many of us are either very proud, very ignorant, or both. We are proud because, “I’m me, and I don’t believe anything that is wrong! There’s no amount of exegesis that will persuade me of this biblical truth. I’ll misquote and take as much scripture out of context as I please! I’m right, and if we differ, then you have your place with the devil!”

Otherwise, we are ignorant, which I believe is a majority of Christians who say, “Well, it has to be true- my granny, or my dad, or brother whistle britches believes that way! Surely they can’t be wrong, and if you quote that verse one more time, you’ll insult my dead grandparents’ faith, and I’ll rip your throat out. But hey! Let’s just agree to disagree!”

Of course, there’s the ignorant who are proud of it who say, “It doesn’t really matter what the Bible says about that. We are on the right side of history here, and this is how we attract people to our movement. Now, how ‘bout a Fortnite tournament and some pizza to help you forget your serious doctrinal question. Have this album from Bethel or Hillsong United!”

 

When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor…and Yourself (A book review)

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What if most people get poverty all wrong? What if the way we try to alleviate poverty makes things worse for everyone?

Several years ago, when my sister came to visit on a college break, she talked about community development and poverty in a way that mesmerised me. She described poverty as being about broken relationships and poverty alleviation as being about restoring those relationships. She talked about the need to differentiate between relief, rehabilitation, and development and the disastrous results when we don’t.

All these thoughts came from her studies in Community Development at Covenant College. Her (now former) professors are some of the world’s leading experts on poverty alleviation. So I decided to read the book her professors wrote: When Helping Hurts by Mr. Steve Corbett and Dr. Brian Fikkert. I was blown away by their insights, and it revolutionized the way I viewed poverty. To this day, I regularly think about principles in their book, which have effected the way I approach people, theology, social ills, and politics. Recently, I decided it was time to re-read it, except this time I took notes. (Which makes it much easier for me to write this book review. 😉)

Before we begin, I will note that this book is written primarily to North American Christians, though certainly anyone could benefit. It also acknowledges the fact that most North American Christians are some of the wealthiest people in the world, even if not all are wealthy by American standards. However, I’m aware that some of my readers may themselves have experienced or be experiencing poverty. For those in that category, I hope this book review can be an encouragement.

WHH-1

The Book’s Purpose

Authors Corbett and Fikkert begin with the assertion that the North American Church is composed of some of the wealthiest people ever to live. Conversely, 40% of the world population struggles even to eat everyday. This book was written because North American Christians, as a whole, are failing to adequately care about an address poverty in North America and in the rest of the world. It was also written because when North American Christians DO attempt poverty alleviation, it often makes worse the very problems they are trying to solve by applying simplistic solutions TO the poor instead of working WITH the poor, thereby perpetuating shame amongst the poor and god-complexes amongst those trying to help the poor.

The call, then, is to care about and do more for poverty alleviation AND to do it in a way that gets to the root of issues, while neither hurting the poor nor ourselves in the process. As the Apostle John writes in 1 John 3:17, “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?” It is imperative for Christians to care about poverty.

Why Should Christians Care About Poverty?

Christians are called to care for God’s creation and to participate in spreading God’s kingdom IN A HOLISTIC MANNER. In other words, though personal piety and the preaching of the gospel are VITAL, they are not the sum total of what Christians are Christians are to be about. In the words of Tim Keller, “The kingdom [of Jesus] is the renewal of the whole world through the entrance of supernatural forces. As things are brought back under Christ’s rule and authority, they are restored to health, beauty, and freedom.” Jesus died to reconcile us to God, BUT ALSO to reconcile us to one another and to creation.

Before the 20th century, Christian’s led the way in ministering to the poor in both physical and spiritual ways. This changed in the 1930s when evangelicals battled theological liberals over core doctrinal beliefs. At this time, because of its supposed connection to theological liberalism, evangelicals largely abandoned the poor. The shift was so dramatic, it has been called “The Great Reversal.” (It should be noted that this happened decades before Lyndon Johnson’s “war on poverty,” which evangelicals sometimes blame for the church’s retreat from poverty alleviation efforts.) In other words, throughout much of the history of the North American Church, theologically-conservative Christians were deeply and practically concerned about the poor.

What is Poverty?

How you answer this question will have profound effects on how you IDENTIFY poor people, what you BELIEVE about them, and HOW YOU SEEK ADDRESS THEIR SITUATION. If you believe poverty comes from lack of knowledge, you will want to EDUCATE the poor. If you believe poverty is a result of oppression, you will seek JUSTICE through social and legal means. If poverty comes from sinful and unwise choices, you will share the GOSPEL and truths about Christian living. If you believe poverty is due to lack of financial resources, you will donate MONEY. (Does this remind anyone else of the divergent ways Republicans and Democrats speak about and seek to address poverty?)

Brian Myers, a Christian development leader defines poverty in the following way: “Poverty is the result of relationships that do not work, that are not just, that are not for life, that are not harmonious or enjoyable. Poverty is the absence of shalom in all its meanings.” Corbett and Fikkert echo the sentiment by describing poverty as being about broken relationships with God, with self, with others, and/or with creation. When these relationships are intact and functioning in a healthy way, people are able to fulfill their purpose AND provide for themselves.

An important aspect of these definitions is the realization that ALL of us are poor in some way. All of us need to have relationships restored to healthy functioning. “One of the major premises of this book is that until we embrace our mutual brokenness, our work with low-income people is likely to do far more harm than good.” (Page 61) This cuts to the heart of the god-complexes that many American Christians possess. ALL of us are broken, and ALL of us need restoration and healing, not just the obviously poor.

It is important, however, to specifically differentiate between the broad concept of poverty and material poverty in particular, which is a lack of material resources. Usually when people talk about poverty, this is the kind of poverty to which they are referring. Though the Bible uses “poor” in multiple senses (e.g. “poor in spirit”), the Bible’s called to help the poor is talking specifically about the materially poor.

Relief, Rehabilitation, and Development

One of the most important components of poverty alleviation is rightly differentiating between relief, rehabilitation, and development. The authors assert that one of the biggest problems when North American Christian try to alleviate poverty is the application of relief principles to rehabilitation or development situations. This might look like building a person a house while they sit, able-bodied, watching. So what’s the difference?

RELIEF addresses immediate needs when a person or group of people are incapable of meeting their own needs. This might occur immediately after a natural disaster or in the cases of mentally disabled homeless people, the very old, the very sick, and the very young. In cases such as these, relief is given to the poor with little participation from the poor themselves. Situations requiring relief are not the norm, but they do exist and should be dealt with quickly. Relief should be immediate, practical, rare, and temporary.

REHABILITATION begins “after the bleeding has stopped” and its goal is to restore the person or community to their pre-crisis level of functioning. In this stage, poverty alleviation happens in conjunction WITH the poor.

DEVELOPMENT then seeks to restore both the helpers and the helped to full levels of flourishing in their relationships with God, self, others, and creation. This also happens in partnership WITH poor.

One of the most important components of rehabilitation and development is “asset assessment.” This means that instead of starting with what the poor lack, the goal is to participate in analyzing the resources the poor ALREADY HAVE. This is called “asset-based community development” which is in opposition to “needs-based community development.” The goal is to evaluate the resources, skills, abilities, ideas, and solutions of the affected population, using these as the basis for facilitating poverty alleviation. How are their communities already organized? What programs or organizations are already in place to address these needs? What skills and resources do the poor already have? This process should be done in concert WITH those needing help, which in itself starts to restore a proper relationship with self as it encourages a sense of competence, self-esteem, and empowerment.

Other principles of good relief, rehabilitation, and development include the following. When possible, allow LOCAL organizations to help the affected community, perhaps partnering with them to assist their efforts. Start by taking care of the MOST VULNERABLE PEOPLE and the MOST IMMEDIATE NEEDS, and do it in a fair and just way. Those assisting in poverty alleviation should be adequately trained both in their worldview (no paternalism; believing in the dignity of the poor; believing that God is already at work amongst the poor) and in the skills needed to do the work required. And finally, generally speaking, what people CAN do for themselves, they SHOULD do for themselves; feeling this sense of power and responsibility is actually PART OF THE PROCESS of restoring the broken relationships cause poverty.

Applications

After examining basic principles, Corbett and Fikkert turn to specific applications of these principles: short-term missions, U.S. material poverty, and global material poverty. I find it fascinating to see their philosophy applied in practical ways.

Short-term Missions

Having grown up in Southeast Asia, I myself have seen some bizarre things associated with short-term missions. From the arrogance of missionaries to the irresponsible use of funds. From culturally-insensitive behavior to paternalistic views of the local people.

But how can short-term missions be done well? Corbett and Fikkert suggest several practical ideas. First, make sure the host organization and local community are the ones initiating the request for help and are doing so in a way that is in line with good development principles. Along with this, those who will be going on the trip should have a clear understanding of what they will do and not do. Second, when recruiting team members, choose people who understand the purpose is less about saving the world and more about partnership and learning. It’s good if those interested in participating have already shown a heart for outreach and ministry in their local settings. Third, have adequate pre-field training that teaches some of the basic principles in this book including emphasizing that we are all poor. These conversations should continue WHILE ON THE MISSION TRIP and for A YEAR following the trip. Fourth, each member of the team should be required to pay part of their own expenses, perhaps raising an equal amount of money to donate to long-term missions or local development organizations. (Local organizations and long-term missionaries are generally much better equipped to make a lasting impact.)

US Material Poverty

What about in the United States? In the political arena, people often reference poverty, perhaps critiquing the way “the other side” deals with it. So what do Corbett and Fikkert have to say? In their view, the goal of material poverty alleviation is: “working to reconcile the four foundational relationships so that people can fulfill their callings of glorifying God by working and supporting themselves and their families with the fruit of that work.” Obstacles to this include BROKEN SYSTEMS and BROKEN INDIVIDUALS. Broken systems may include racism, classism, and difficulty accessing safe and affordable housing, adequate education, and basic health care. Broken individuals may lack a healthy view of themselves or knowledge of how to better their situation. The exact contributing factors will vary by situation.

To address material poverty in the United States, it’s important to implement a relational, participatory, and developmental approach. In other words, relief is not (usually) what is needed; rehabilitation or development is. This means that the materially poor should participate in their journey towards restored relationships and providing for themselves.

There will generally be several components to poverty alleviation. Often, the materially poor can benefit from the development of soft skills (such as a good work ethic, social skills, dependability, communication), hard skills (related to a specific vocation), financial education, and worldview training. It may also be appropriate to connect them with government programs such as the Earned Income Tax Credit, which enables low-income workers to get tax credits for every hour they work; this, combined with a minimum wage salary may enable a family to live above the poverty line. Non-government organizations may be helpful in making available Individual Development Account Programs, which reward monthly savings via matching. One such program does a two-to-one match for every dollar saved.

Global Material Poverty

Global poverty is a huge issue. 2.6 billion people live on less than $2 a day. Economists believe that the long-term solution is to increase the number of large manufacturing firms. Unfortunately, there just aren’t enough being started, which means there are not enough jobs. As a result, many people turn to farming or small businesses to support themselves. This is challenging for those in poverty because they lack capital and/or access to loans. The exception may be loan sharks, who routinely take advantage of poor people.

Enter the micro-financing revolution! Dr. Muhammad Yunus, a Nobel laureate and economics professor, started a bank in Bangladesh to facilitate loans for poor people. Since it began in 1976, 7.58 million poor people have taken out loans from it for a total of $7.4 billion.

Through micro-financing, poor people are voluntarily put into borrowing groups and provide capital for other group members to take out small loans with a regimented repayment plan. In this system, poor people are coming together to help themselves and each other, and there is high accountability and motivation for loan repayment. While the number of large-scale manufacturing jobs are insufficient at present, micro-financing can be key to helping alleviate global poverty. However, the main disadvantage is that it focuses primarily on the material aspects of poverty.

Corbett and Fikkert work for a Christian development organization called the Chalmers Center for Economic Development. They have developed curricula to be used in conjunction WITH micro-financing that enables a more comprehensive approach to poverty alleviation. It includes business training, information on health, financial teaching, and worldview education (focusing on the four key relationships as well as the principles of dignity, stewardship, and discipline). This way, poor people are provided material resources to start small businesses WHILE gaining skills and support in other areas as well.

There are many ways that the North American Church can support micro-financing ventures globally. They can encourage and observe existing micro-financing efforts. They can subsidize training costs. They can facilitate training of those starting micro-financing ventures. They can donate to the evangelistic components of micro-financing institutions. They can financially invest in “business as missions” ventures. They can advocate for and promote organizations that use micro-financing. And they can pray for all the above.

Response

With so much information in this book, the authors then turn to what the proper response is, both for individuals and for communities.

Individual

Individuals, first of all, are called to repentance, if such repentance is necessary. Repentance for failure to care for the poor. Repentance for paternalistic attitudes and behaviors. Repentance for being disconnected from the full implications of Christ’s renewal of creation. “Without such repentance, our efforts to help the poor will continue to be characterized by providing material resources to the poor, rather than walking with them in humble and relational ways as we call on King Jesus to fix the root causes of both of our poverties.” (page 248)

Community

Corbett and Fikkert suggest a process whereby communities can mobilize together to address material property. “The goal of the process is to create a ‘community partnership,’ a group of individuals, associations (including churches), and institutions that cooperate to use the assets of the community to solve problems and to bring positive change to the community, i.e., to pursue ‘development.'”

The book recommends the following general process. First, interview all parties in the community. Second, identify community leaders, including those within the materially poor community. Third, form a team of identified leaders and conduct more interviews amongst the materially poor community. Fourth, choose a specific issue to begin addressing, one that is likely to be an easy success. Fifth, research and assess community assets, and begin the project. Sixth, evaluate the progress and celebrate successes. Finally, decide what is next; should the community partnership pick a different issue to work on or dig deeper into the current issue? Should the community partnership expand to include others or should it stay the same? In these ways, communities can pool their resources and expertise to address real problems in a way that honors the dignity, capabilities, and responsibilities of all involved.

My Reflections

When I first read this book about 4 years ago, I was fascinated! I was also grieved to realize my own wrong beliefs and attitudes about poverty. Honestly, this was one of those books that shifted my worldview–a game changer. It opened my eyes to the idea that problems in society can be because of broken individuals AND broken systems. This was a paradigm shift for me, which ended up preparing me to learn about American racism, which I wrote about here.

Growing up as a missionary kid in Southeast Asia, I could definitely relate to some of the critiques of short-term missions. I’ve seen short-term teams be culturally insensitive and prideful. I’ve been angered and grieved over all the money that goes towards short-term missions when indigenous organizations and long-term missionaries often suffer from lack of funds. Reading this book helped to explain my unease as well as help me see a positive way short-term missions can be done.

I’ve also seen tastes of global poverty, and I sometimes wonder at the immense wealth in the US (and the way it is often taken for granted). I remember when I was in graduate school studying elementary education, I visited a local public school with my classmates. We sat in a reading resource room to debrief our experience after classroom observations. Every single wall in the classroom was filled with reading material, and at one point, I started sobbing because of the immense resources that surrounded us. I wondered if the people at that school had any idea how blessed they were. Along with this, I myself have been challenged towards more thankfulness and less entitlement.

And finally, I was challenged to donate not just to missions but to community development and poverty alleviation efforts as I realized the integral role they play in the holistic spread of Christ’s kingdom.

In conclusion, I highly recommend this book–particularly to North American Christians, but to others as well. It changed my worldview in good ways and has empowered me with knowledge to see people more accurately and to express practical care for others in productive, loving ways.

Resources

The authors of the book head up an organization called Chalmers Center for Economic Development. That would be a good resource for learning more about community development for my best practices in biblical perspective. (website) (Facebook).

I’m still learning about good community development organizations, but if you’re looking to check out specific organizations or donate to their work, here are a few I recommend. Food For the Hungry (website) and Care of Creation Kenya (website) are both good. Mission organizations I am particularly fond of are Wycliffe Bible Translators (website) and Mission to the World (website). (I grew up as a WBT/MTW missionary kid, and I think both of these organizations are excellent! 😉)

What have been your experiences with poverty or poverty alleviation? What organizations do you know off that are doing good work?

~Hannah 🌸