Who is Blessed? (a repost, sort of)

Note: The bulk of this post originally appeared on January 3, 2007. The introductory paragraph has been changed to fit the context of July 2011.

The United States recently celebrated another Independence Day. At some point — in the midst of all the flag waving — you may have heard references to how America is “truly blessed.” Clearly America enjoys certain blessings, but what if we, as members of Christ’s Church, were to step back and honestly apply some biblical perspective to the claims about America being “truly blessed.” What if we examined what it means to be blessed from God’s perspective to see if our claims of blessing measure up?

Consider how the topic of America being blessed usually comes up. We usually contrast ourselves with some place where Christians don’t “have it as good” as we do. Right?

We read about people like Noviana Malewa and pray for our brothers and sisters in Christ who, because of their unwavering faith in or Lord, end up beaten, in jail, or murdered. We consider the horrible situations of those other poor Christians, then…

… because we are not in similar circumstances we say we are “truly blessed.”

We say things like:

  • “Just last week I was ‘blessed’ to get a really good parking place at the mall.”
  • “I was really ‘blessed’ to find the last PlayStation 3, which had ‘miraculously’ been misplaced behind the bargain bin of DVDs.”
  • And then, when we finally get around to thinking of spiritual things, we say we are “blessed” to live in a country where we can worship as we see fit and share the gospel anytime we want.

You would think that American Christians — with all of our “blessings” — would be praising God like crazy and sharing the gospel constantly. Why, the church in America should be growing like gangbusters. Not like those poor Christians in places where they are persecuted for their faith. It would certainly be understandable if the church were not growing where they are, the odds are just so stacked against them.

Here’s an interesting tidbit: Church growth in America is virtually non-existent while the Church in all those poor areas where they don’t have it as good as we do is growing and growing and growing. Consider the following report from Global Christian Mission:

“…Persecution against Christians increased worldwide throughout 2006, but believers in those countries continue to stand strong for Christ. Throughout India, Hindu extremists have stepped up attacks against Christians, especially in the northern provinces. Experts say some Hindu leaders are alarmed over the rapid spread of Christianity throughout the nation. In China, the government continues to harass underground house churches — those congregations that do not register with the state-controlled churches. Dr. Carl Moeller, president of Open Doors USA, says Christians in persecuted nations know the risks when they identify with Christ. “What’s really happening around the world is [that] the Church is growing,” Moeller shares. “It’s precisely the very message that Jesus brought: that the gates of hell would not be able to stand against the Church.” But as that happens, he says, persecution comes. “The enemy is not silent; the enemy is not passive,” he says. “And the enemy is active in bringing much pain and suffering to our brothers and sisters.” North Korea continues to be the most repressive nation when it comes to persecution against Christians.”

And yet the Church thrives there.

Isn’t that interesting.

Even more interesting is that we are usually aware of the growth of the Church in persecuted areas. Even while we lament their less-than-desirable conditions, we admire the faith of those believers who stand firm in the face of real opposition. Maybe we recognize that we might not exercise the same measure of faith under similar circumstances. Often we make comments like, “I wish I had that kind of faith.”

eightballsm.jpgI’m reminded of the story of a pastor in China. He was imprisoned for preaching and teaching the Word of God. Once in prison he continued to preach and teach — and God blessed. Not only were other prisoners saved, but so, too, were a number of prison guards and officials. This pastor created such a “disturbance” that prison officials decided to release him several months early just so his influence would be removed. You know what he did? He demanded to serve his full sentence so that he could continue to proclaim the gospel in prison. His wife and children fully supported his decision to stay.

Why?

Because they all viewed his imprisonment as a God-given opportunity to proclaim the gospel in a place he otherwise would not have been able to reach. They viewed it as a — here comes that word — blessing.

Which brings me to the biblical perspective I mentioned several paragraphs ago.

All of this reminds me of the apostles in Acts 5. The apostles were in Jerusalem preaching in Jesus’ name. The high priest and the Sadducees had them arrested and thrown in jail. But an angel of the Lord opened the doors and told them to go stand in the Temple courts and preach — which they did. They were once again brought before the Sanhedrin for questioning.

“We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name,” the high priest told them. “Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to make us guilty of this man’s blood.”

How did Peter and the other apostles reply? “We must obey God rather than men…” they said.

Many members of the Sanhedrin wanted the apostles put to death but they decided instead to flog the apostles and release them, once again ordering them not to preach in Jesus’ name.

This is some pretty rough stuff — the same kind of stuff we see in other parts of the world today and thank God we do not have to endure. But how did the apostles view this little turn of events?

You guessed it. They viewed it as a blessing. Acts 5 concludes this way:

“The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name. Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Christ.”

Okay, fine! But can’t things like wealth and freedom be considered blessings, too? Yes, they can — if they are utilized according to God’s will and in a manner that is glorifying to Him. If they are valued more than God they become idols. In Romans 1 Paul discusses God’s wrath against mankind this way:

“For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.

Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshipped and served created things rather than the Creator — who is forever praised. Amen.”

So, where does that leave us? Do we have the proper perspective on our blessings in America? Do we view our wealth and freedom as tools to be used for God’s glory, or do we treasure our wealth and freedom more than the God who provided them? We seem to have every advantage necessary to do mighty things in God’s name and yet we seem to lack the faith.

On the other hand, our brethren in other places seem to have the faith while lacking the things we count as advantages.

We look at them and proclaim ourselves blessed.

When they look at us I wonder if they do the same thing.

The Nature of True Liberty (a repost)

Note: This post originally appeared on July 4, 2005.

In the mid-1700s the American colonists grew increasingly frustrated at the level of intrusion in their lives on the part of the British government. They were taxed too much. They were subject to the government at its whim, whether that meant housing British troops in their homes or forfeiting their property for the benefit of the crown. They decided to do something about it. For more than a decade they actively resisted the rule of the British in a number of ways. Then, on July 4, 1776, they seceded from the British Empire and established themselves as a cooperating confederation of 13 independent states. They chose liberty. But it came with a high price tag.

Most of the leaders of the movement toward independence were men of wealth, privilege and position. But they valued liberty more. It’s a good thing, too, because with few exceptions their fight for freedom, while winning them their precious liberty, cost them practically everything else. Perhaps it is for this reason they endeavored to insure liberty would remain a part of their legacy to future generations of Americans.

To secure this legacy, they prepared a document intended to be a guide for us. They left us the Constitution. They left it because, quite frankly, they didn’t trust us to take good care of the liberty, which had cost them so much. Not that this is an indictment on us in particular, they just didn’t trust men, period.

“In questions of power, then, let no more be said of confidence in man,” Thomas Jefferson said. “But bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution.”

Subsequent Americans in positions of government were to be extremely limited in what they were allowed to do. This was the entire purpose of the Constitution.

“Congress has not unlimited powers to provide for the general welfare but only those specifically enumerated,” Jefferson said.

I guess these men had an incredible ability to understand the hearts of men. They knew that men who obtain power will do just about anything to keep it. Jefferson even observed that it might be necessary, periodically, to revolt again and again in order to keep true liberty. Their concerns are vindicated by history. Today, our federal government has far exceeded the scope of authority established by the Constitution.

James Madison, the author of the Constitution, once said, “I cannot undertake to lay my finger on that article of the Constitution which granted a right to Congress of expending, on objects of benevolence, the money of their constituents.” Remember, according to Jefferson, Congress may only do those things specifically enumerated in the Constitution.

Yet our current federal government spends billions of our dollars on things like Medicare, Medicaid, welfare, Social Security, and the like, at a huge cost to the American taxpayer. The virtue of any of these programs is not at issue here. The only issue is that Congress, according to the Constitution, has no authority to do these things. The legacy of political liberty, as won by our founders, is all but gone. Fortunately for us, they left us another legacy.

The founders knew that the nature of true liberty was not something granted by man — it is granted by God. The language of the Declaration of Independence reflects this. Consider the phase, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights….” Of course the Christian nature of colonial culture demanded no explanation for the word “Creator.” Toward the end of the document we find the additional phrase, “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence….” Again, the language was plain enough.

Even if you want to debate the language contained in the Declaration of Independence, it is hard to refute the words of the men themselves when they said things like …

“God who gave us life, gave us liberty at the same time. Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed their only sure basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that those liberties are the gift of God?” — Thomas Jefferson

“In addition to the distinguished character of a Patriot, it should be our highest glory to add the more distinguished character of a Christian.” — George Washington

“[The Revolutionary War] connected in one indissoluble bond the principles of civil government with the principles of Christianity.” — John Quincy Adams

“It cannot be emphasized too strongly or too often that this great nation was founded, not by religionists, but by Christians; not on religions, but on the Gospel of Jesus Christ. For this very reason peoples of other faiths have been afforded asylum, prosperity, and freedom to worship here.” — Patrick Henry

“The religion which has introduced civil liberty is the religion of Christ and His apostles, which enjoins humility, piety, and benevolence; which acknowledges in every person a brother, or a sister, and a citizen with equal rights. This is genuine Christianity, and to this we owe our free Constitutions of Government.” — Noah Webster

Now, I know a debate has raged for years over the founders and their intentions. “They wanted to form a ‘Christian nation’,” some argue. “No, no,” others respond, “They were all deists.” It seems pretty clear from their own statements that not all of these men were deists. Some of them may have been. Others were probably Christians. It also seems pretty clear that they were not trying to form a “Christian nation.” First of all, nations are not Christian. People are. And Christians who fellowship together in the same place form the Church, not a nation. But beyond that, the founders did not establish a theocracy when they were most at liberty to do so. Instead, it seems clear that these men merely recognized that biblical Christianity and the principles of liberty were completely consistent with one another.

You see, they understood that civil governments are only necessary because men have to be restrained from encroaching on one another’s liberty due to obedience to their sinful nature. But for the sinful heart of man there would be no need for police and courts. There would be no need for armies and navies. They understood it may be necessary for men to fight other men to protect their political and civil liberty because they understood the prophet Jeremiah when he said, “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked….” As long as men are enslaved to their sin, they will violate the civil liberties of others.

And there is the key. True liberty can only come when we have been set free from sin. This is why the founders did not try to separate the principles of Christianity from civil government. They believed in liberty too much. This is why the Constitution prohibits Congress from exercising any authority over religion. The founders understood that the authority flows in the other direction.

When we celebrate America’s independence we should seriously consider the words of George Washington, and “add the more distinguished character of a Christian.” Only then will we honor the legacy of true liberty.

And while we can watch the erosion of the civil liberties won during the American Revolution, we can take heart in the knowledge that true liberty is secure because we have not been charged with its protection. Christ, in answering a group of Jews concerning freedom, spoke of the security of true liberty. “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”

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