Does God Really Hate Religion?

“Inconceivable!”

“You keep using that word; I do not think it means what you think it means.”

So goes the dialogue in one of the most memorable scenes of perhaps the greatest comedy ever made, The Princess Bride.

I believe you could level the same critique at the way the word “religion” is used in Christian circles today. Whether on a podcast, on social media, or in a sermon you have probably been exposed to more than one person proclaiming that God hates religion. Or maybe you’ve heard that God wants a relationship, not religion. Or, Jesus came to abolish religion. It has become common for Christians to use the word “religion” in a strictly negative sense. It has become synonymous with legalism, hypocrisy, and self-righteousness. Religion is understood to be all law and no grace.

What is the problem with equating religion with legalism, hypocrisy, and self-righteousness? The Bible doesn’t allow for such a simplistic understanding. James 1:27 speaks of religion that is “pure and undefiled.” If Jesus hates religion, he forgot to tell his brother James. In the Bible, religion can devolve into a legalistic routine, rote ritual, and self-righteous attitudes, or religion can be pure and undefiled. What makes the difference?

What Is Pure Religion?

Pure religion has three necessary components: true faith, proper ritual, and godly living. This can be seen in James 1:26-27 wherein the brother of Jesus contrasts worthless religion with pure religion. James wrote, “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” Let’s look at each of the three aspects of pure religion from this passage:

  1. True Faith. Pure religion before God begins with a proper understanding of Christ and a proper response to his sacrificial death and victorious resurrection. John Piper argues that “religion” in James 1 is synonymous with “faith in Christ” in James 2. He states, “The reason I think he means ‘faith in Jesus’ when he uses the word ‘religious”’(1:26), or talks about ‘pure and undefiled religion’ (1:27), is that this is what he continues with in the next verse (2:1): ‘My brethren, do not hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal favoritism.’ There is no break in the flow between 1:27 and 2:1; so there is good reason to think that ‘pure religion’ is ‘faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.’”
  2. Proper Ritual. In v. 26 James is critiquing those who engage in religious activities (praying, fasting, and worshipping in community) but are divisive with their words. James is not being critical of religious activities themselves, he is simply pointing out that engaging in these activities is pointless if they aren’t bracketed by true faith in Christ on one side and godly living on the other. Jesus himself was often engaged in religious observances. He taught the Scriptures in the synagogue (Luke 4:31-37), he engaged in prayer often (Luke 5:16), he instituted the Lord’s Supper (Mark 14:12–26) and church discipline (Matthew 18:15-20), et al.
  3. Godly Living. The main point of James’ critique is that true faith, presumably accompanied by meaningful engagement in religious worship, will produce godly living. Specifically, it will produce a deep concern for orphans and widows. David H. Peters writes, “true piety helps the helpless, for God is the God who secures the rights of those who have no hope.” True religion, James goes on to argue, also produces a separation from the evil influences of the pervading culture.

What Does God Hate?

Now we are in a position to better consider what it is that God hates. He certainly doesn’t hate what James has called “pure and undefiled” religion–True faith in Christ, proper engagement in religious practices, and godliness. What God hates is religion that is lacking in one or more of the three areas listed above. He hates legalism–believing that we can earn God’s righteousness through being good–because it fails to properly understand and trust Christ. He hates hypocrisy because it claims to believe rightly about Christ, but doesn’t result in a deep concern for others or separation from the world. He hates self-righteousness because it tries to obey outwardly but lacks true worship and reliance on God through prayer, fasting, and worship.

It is not that God hates religion, he hates religion that is in clear defiance to his good will.

Conclusion

One of the reasons that the motto “God hates religion” is so attractive to us is that it gives us the illusion of having all the benefits of Jesus without all of his demands. It allows us to pick and choose which parts of the Bible we should submit to and which parts are just a little too “religious” for our relationship with God. It is tempting to cast off all the commands of Scripture we don’t like and label them as mere religious legalism. However, if we do that, we are actually participating in the very thing we are decrying, namely, a religious system that God hates.

Credits

PhPhoto by Marie Bellando-Mitjans on Unsplash

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (James 1:26-27 and all other Scripture). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

John Piper sermon quoted above can be found here: https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/visiting-orphans-in-a-world-of-aids-and-abortion.

David H. Peters, The Epistle of James: A Commentary on the Greek Text, NIGTC (Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 1982) 103.

3 Convictions for a Consistent Prayer Life

Prayer is an area that nearly every Christian has room for greater consistency and discipline. That is actually the easy part to admit. It is more difficult to acknowledge that our lack of prayer flows from wrong thinking about God and ourselves. Our natural bent is towards unbelief and self-sufficiency. These tendencies often keep us from praying.

As we peer into the Word of God we find help for our prayerlessness in the opening pages of 1 Samuel. The book begins with a woman weeping in Shiloh. Her name is Hannah, and she teaches us much about prayer. A close inspection of Hannah’s story points us ultimately to God’s faithfulness and demonstrates that his character fuels our prayers. If Hannah were our instructor in the school of prayer, I believe she would give us 3 necessary convictions for a consistent prayer life.

1. Recognize Your Dependence

One conviction we must develop is a deep recognition of our dependence on God and his grace. We will never consistently pray without a settled understanding that we, as sinful creatures, need the Lord. I once heard a preacher say that a Christian’s prayerlessness is his/her declaration of independence from God. When we fail to pray regularly, we are demonstrating a reliance on self that is antithetical to the Scriptures. So, instead of pretending like we have it all together, we begin by admitting that we are actually quite needy.

We see this demonstrated in the life of Hannah. Upon first meeting her, we learn that she is absolutely devastated by her inability to conceive a child. On top of that, her husband makes his best case for “the boneheaded move of the year award” when he asks her, “…why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?” (1 Samuel 1:8 ESV). [A word of wisdom to husbands reading this, if you come across your wife crying, the answer is never to remind her how blessed she is to have you in her life]. Worst than the dumb question, Hannah’s husband has taken another wife, Peninnah, who has been able to bear children. Peninnah is relentless in her mocking and bullying of Hannah (see 1 Samuel 1:6-7).

All of this culminates in Hannah being broken. Her circumstances, family, and friends have all failed to provide hope. She is in such anguish that she has stopped eating. In her pain, she understands that there is only one place she can run. And run she does, straight to the throne of grace.

2. Believe God Cares

It is not enough to know we need God, we must believe that he cares. We need to know that our cries are heard by a tender and loving Father. God, by sheer grace, invites us to pour out our fears, our failings, our desires, and our griefs to him. It doesn’t make him nervous or embarrassed. He delights in hearing from his children.

Hannah is found at the Temple “pouring out her soul out before the Lord” because she believes that God is the type of God that cares for his children (1 Samuel 1:15). Dale Ralph Davis makes the connection between her desperate prayer and her belief that God cares, “[Hannah] addresses Yahweh of hosts, cosmic ruler, sovereign of every and all power, and assumes that the broken heart of a relatively obscure woman in the hill country of Ephraim matters to him.”

Hannah is so eccentric in her prayer that the priest on duty assumes that she is drunk (1 Samuel 1:14). While the priest is guessing about Hannah’s state of mind, the Lord of the universe has leaned in to hear her plea.

3. Trust God’s Sovereignty

God not only cares, but he is also sovereign, meaning he can and will bring about that which he wills. He is powerful enough to answer any request. He can save the person you’ve nearly given up praying for. He can deliver your child from the deepest bondage to sin. He can restore broken relationships. He can comfort in the deepest affliction.

We see Hannah’s trust in God’s sovereignty in the way she addresses him. She calls him “Lord (Yahweh) of Hosts,” a title signifying his rule over the entire universe. He is the sovereign Lord who commands all the armies of heaven. There is seemingly no doubt in Hannah’s mind that the one who “closed her womb’ (1:5) is the one powerful enough to reverse her fortunes. Hannah’s trust in the sovereignty of God doesn’t lead her to a “ho-hum why should I pray if God is sovereign?” sort of attitude. Instead, it was her understanding of the sovereignty of God that drove her to pray.

Conclusion

No schedule, no app, no amount of alarms can create in us a desire to pray. After all, Hannah didn’t run to the Lord because she realized she hadn’t done her daily quiet time. She came out of a clear understanding that she needed him to act, a firm belief that he cared to listen, and a settled trust that he was powerful enough to deliver her. Likewise, let us rest in these truths and find in ourselves a growing desire to pour our souls out before the Lord.

Credits

Photo by Hamish Clark on Unsplash

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Proverbs 9:10 and all other Scripture). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

Dale Ralph Davis, I Samuel: Looking on the Heart (Christian Focus: Ross-Shire, Scotland, 1988) 18.

Fear God, Find Wisdom

I went through an odd music phase in high school where I really began to enjoy oldies music. This probably had a lot to do with the fact that my waterproof shower radio only picked up one station and it happened to be the local oldies broadcast. One song that often played was Everybody Plays the Fool by the Main Ingredient. What the title suggests is true, there are no exceptions, we all play the fool sometimes. But, nobody really desires to be the fool.

Instead, we all want to be wise. After all, Proverbs reminds us that wisdom is more valuable than silver or gold (Prov. 3:14). Those who find wisdom are considered blessed (Prov. 3:13). The wise “will find favor and good success in the sight of God and man” (Prov. 3:4). Needless to say, wisdom is to be valued and sought after with perseverance. If we are to pursue wisdom–true wisdom, the type of wisdom that is priceless–we must understand that wisdom begins with fearing God. Solomon, the wise king of Israel, wrote, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Prov. 9:10). If we desire to be wise, we must first consider what it means to fear God.

What Does it Mean to Fear God?

In C. S. Lewis’s beloved novel The Lion, The Witch and Wardrobe four children stumble into the fantastical world of Narnia. They find themselves at Mr. and Mrs. Beavers home being instructed about the Christ-figure Aslan. When the children discover that Aslan is a lion, they naturally have some questions about whether it is safe to meet him. Mr. Beaver responds, “Safe? … Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”


The fear of the Lord is a holy reverence for God flowing from a right understanding of God resulting in submission to God.


In Narnia, Aslan reigns as both the sovereign Lord as well as the good and gracious king. He is neither a domesticated house cat nor a violent ruler. Peter, the oldest of the four children, responds appropriately to the unsafe, yet good Aslan. He says, “I’m longing to see him. Even if I do feel frightened when it comes to the point.” Like Peter, a proper understanding of God leads us to a sense of fear and, at the same time, a longing to know him. In affirming both the complete holiness of God and the goodness of God we can begin to understand what it means for us to fear God.

The fear of the Lord is a holy reverence for God flowing from a right understanding of God resulting in submission to God. Often when we consider fear we think only of being terrified. However, to fear God is less horror and more reverence. It is something that goes beyond mere respect for God but stops short of sheer terror. Therefore, to fear God is to revere him or to stand in awe of him.

This reverence develops as we properly understand God as he has revealed himself in Scripture. For instance, in Ecclesiastes 3:14 fearing God is directly linked to his sovereign power, “I perceived that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it. God has done it, so that people fear before him.” Further, After pointing out God’s transcendence, holiness, and righteousness, Ecclesiastes 5:7 concludes, “God is the one you must fear.” When we understand our state as sinful creatures before a holy God, the proper response is fear, reverence, or awe. How then does a proper fear of God lead us into greater wisdom?

How is Fearing God Connected to Wisdom?

In the Bible, wisdom is a moral category as opposed to an intellectual one. Wisdom is living life God’s way in God’s world for God’s glory. Wisdom grants a person the ability to navigate the tumultuous waters of life in a way that pleases God. The fool, on the other hand, lives as if God does not exist (Psalm 14:1). He is described not as an intellectual dummy, but as the one who disregards his creator.

With this understanding of wisdom, it is easy to see why the fear of the Lord is the foundation of all wisdom. There is no true wisdom apart from a proper attitude and relationship to God. God is the source of true wisdom. Therefore, a deep reverence for God leads us to want to please him in all the various aspects of life including the way we spend our money, how we treat others, the words we use, how we handle lust, our responses to suffering, and a thousand other moments.

There is such things as false wisdom (Isaiah 5:21), earthly wisdom (James 3:15), and worldly thinking that parades itself as wisdom (Colossians 2:23). However, true wisdom–the skill to know God’s agenda and the motivation to live it out–begins only with a proper reverence for God. This is the very foundation in which wisdom is built. In essence, we will never walk in biblical wisdom until we cherish the God of all wisdom.

In Closing

We all want wisdom, but the path is often painful. Wisdom comes from humbling ourselves before God. To quote C. S. Lewis once more, “In God you come up against something which is in every respect immeasurably superior to yourself. Unless you know God as that–you do not know God at all. As long as you are proud, you cannot know God. A proud man is always looking down on things and people; and, of course, as long as you are looking down, you cannot see something that is above you.”

Do you revere God? Have you experienced the freedom of humbling yourself before him? If not, begin by looking to the cross of Christ. The wise King, Jesus Christ, died a brutal death to rescue you from the treason of living life like he doesn’t matter. The one who is immeasurably beyond you, humbled himself to rescue you. Turn to him and find mercy, fear him and find wisdom.

Credits

Photo by Jonathan Bowers on Unsplash

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Proverbs 9:10 and all other Scripture). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

C. S. Lewis, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe (New York: Collier Brooks, 1972) 75-76.

C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan, 1958) 56.

Help! I’m Irritable Today

What is it that irritates you to no end? Someone using all the hot water in the morning? The WiFi going out? Your favorite team blowing a late-game lead? Traffic? Screaming kids? The opportunities to grow irritable in a day seem endless.

I am often surprised how little it takes to grow frustrated with my circumstances or people around me. In my irritability, there is a major disparity between the size of my problem and the extent of my reaction. I often wonder if I would respond more God-pleasing to a real tragedy in my life than I do when I step on a toy left out by my kids. I’m sure I’m not alone. For many of us, there is a fit of anger lurking just beneath the surface, ready to leap out at the slightest inconvenience. Before we have time to stop and think, we’ve expressed our displeasure with biting words, a darting glare, a disgruntled sigh, or shutting down. We wonder, why am I in such a bad mood? Where is this coming from?

I’ve Had My Coffee and I’m Still Irritated

We’ve all seen and laughed at the coffee jokes on social media:

“Don’t talk to me until I’ve had my coffee.”

“My favorite coworker is the coffee pot.”

“How to approach me before I’ve had coffee: Don’t!”

When it comes to irritability, coffee helps, but it is not the solution. These and other memes like them are lighthearted attempts to pin our irritability on something external to us. Unfortunately, the source of our irritability is more personal. The Bible reminds us that this behavior flows from within us. Solomon made this point in saying, “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life” (Proverbs 4:23 ESV). The hard truth is that we grow irritable when our circumstances and the people around us don’t fall in line with our expectations or desires (James 4:1-2). The people in our lives that God has given us to love become obstacles in the way of getting what we want. When we don’t get our way we lash out with a quick verbal barrage, punish with the silent treatment, seclude ourselves from others, or pout. Our irritability may look different on the outside for each individual, but the root is the same–we wanted something and didn’t get it.

It is necessary to admit that our irritability is an internal sin problem, not an external people problem. This admission is an important step towards change. When we know the source of our problem, we can find real solutions. For instance, my oldest son Brennan once shut his brother’s left hand in the sliding glass door. Harrison began screaming in pain as his hand was still stuck. Brennan, aware that something was wrong, began fervently looking his brother over to figure out what was causing the distress. Brennan looked over every square inch of Harrison except the hand that was stuck. Since Brennan couldn’t identify the real source of the problem, his solutions were inadequate. The same is true with our growth in Christ. If we identify irritability as a problem outside of us, we will work to change our circumstances, or worse, we will demand that people conform themselves to our agenda. Knowing the true problem leads to real solutions, and to that we now turn.

Where to begin

Remember the hope of the gospel. Irritability is necessarily self-centered. Thankfully, In Christ, we are free from living for self and empowered to live like him—patient, kind, meek, etc (1 Corinthians 5:15). Because of Christ, we can please God even amidst difficult circumstances or people. For more on this, consider a previous post from Tyler about our freedom from sin’s power.

Ask good questions. Seek to discern what exactly you are wanting when you are irritated. As G.I. Joe would say, “knowing is half the battle.” Asking simple questions like, “what is it that I’m desiring right now?” Or “what is the one thing that would change my mood right now if I could snap my fingers and get it?” The answer for me is usually comfort. I want to live a life of uninterrupted ease. When that gets compromised–I have 3 young boys; it gets compromised–I can grow irritable. For others it could be an over-desire for respect, love, attention, success, safety, order, etc. that leads to irritability.

Turn away. Knowing the heart motive behind your irritability allows you to repent more specifically to God and others. Saying, “Forgive me for desiring comfort so much that I became frustrated when you needed my help” is more helpful than simply apologizing. It acknowledges the real sin and keeps you from blaming others or the pressures you were facing.

Put on thankfulness. It is hard to be thankful and moody at the same time. When the Apostle Paul wanted to urge the Colossian believers to “bear with one another” he mentions thankfulness 3 times (see Colossians 3:12-17). Even if everything has fallen apart around you, you can be thankful for Christ, his gospel, The Spirit’s sanctifying work in you, the Father’s care and concern for you, among many other blessings we have in Christ.

In Closing

In the recently released documentary Free Solo, Alex Honnold climbs 3,000 feet straight up the granite rock face of Yosemite’s El Capitan. He does this all without the safety of ropes and anchors. In other words, one slip, one mistake and he plummets to his death. Naturally, many have asked him about controlling his fear while hanging from a cliff thousands of feet above the valley floor. He said that his goal is not to push the fear out, but to expand his comfort zone. For him, focusing on removing fear is ineffective. Instead, he pours himself into preparation, practice, and planning to a point that he is comfortable with the most dangerous situations. Focusing on removing fear, creates more fear.

Similarly, focusing on the circumstances and people surrounding our irritability just exacerbates the problem. We can’t fight our irritability by merely focusing on our irritability. Instead, we ought to focus on Christ, his work for us and in us, all the blessings he has given to us, and we might just find that our irritability cannot thrive next to joy in Christ.

Credits

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Proverbs 4:23 and all other Scripture). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

Photo by Andre Hunter on Unsplash

5 Common Reasons for Quitting Church and Why We Should Reject Them

The following list is not a scientific poll. it is anecdotal. It is experiential. These are the most common reasons I’ve heard for why once faithful attendees no longer participate in church. These reasons are, however, unconvincing in the end. After all, if active involvement in a theologically robust, God-glorifying, people-loving church is God’s will for every believer, then there really are no good reasons to quit going to church. There may be good cause to move to another church, but quitting church altogether is never God’s desire for anyone. With that said, what are some of the most common reasons given for giving up on the church?

1) “There are hypocrites in church.”

Yes, there are hypocrites in every church. And it is certainly easy to grow weary of those who say one thing and do another. It is also easy to forget that we are often just as guilty of hypocrisy. There are many ways that we fail to even live up to our own expectations of ourselves, much less God’s will for us. Thankfully, God’s love for us is not based on our ability to do what we know is best in every moment. In fact, God saves those who are willing to admit that they are often hypocrites and acknowledge they are in need of God’s grace. So, to those decrying all the hypocrites inside the church, God’s invitation is that there is always room for one more.

2) “I’ve been hurt by someone at church.”

The church is a family and like most families, there will be hurt along the way. For many, it is ordinary relational difficulty that produces a root of bitterness; that root grows into resentment and eventually results in total avoidance. God’s Word anticipates this kind of division and calls us to protect unity (Ephesians 4:3), forgive those who hurt us (Colossians 3:13), and restore broken relationships (Matthew 5:24).

For others, the hurt is more severe such as abuse or assault. These greivous sins ought not to be taken lightly and are not taken so by God. However, God’s plan for upholding those who have been terribly sinned against includes the church (1 Thessalonians 5:14), not fleeing from the church. This is not to say that one must remain in the same church in which they were abused/assaulted, in many cases they should not.

3) “I can’t find a church that meets all my needs”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer warned against the danger of desiring a church that is a perfect fit, “He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial. God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own law, and judges the brethren and God himself accordingly.”

It feels good to believe that we are so spiritual that no church can attain our standards, but Bonhoeffer reminds us that this attitude flows from pride. He provokes the question, “Is it truly our super-spirituality which leads us to believe no church is good enough for us? Or, is that the best excuse we can find to stop gathering with the church while easing our consciences?”

4) “I don’t need the church.”

Many assume the church is nothing more than a spiritual pep rally to get us through the week ahead. It is unsurprising then that so many see the church as unimportant or unnecessary. After all, we have our Bibles and we have Jesus, so who needs the church? The obvious problem is that this directly contradicts the teaching of Scripture. God actually designed us in such a way that we need one another. We need teaching, accountability, encouragement, love, prayer, fellowship, singing, etc. and gathering regularly in church is God’s plan for providing these opportunities for us (Ephesians 4:1-16).

5) “I’m too busy to go to church.”

In a sermon series concerning the church, Dr. David Martyn Lloyd-Jones admonished those whom he called “trippers”–those who regularly found better things to do than gather with the church. He told his congregation, “Unless you feel that something is being offered and given to you here [at church] which no other institution can offer or equal, well then, in the name of Heaven, go out into the country or to the seaside. The church of Christ is a church of believers, an association of people banded together by a common belief and a common love. You don’t believe? Well, above all, don’t pretend that you do, go to the country and the seaside. All I ask of you is, be consistent. When someone dies in your family, do not come to ask the church in which you do not believe to come bury him. Go to the seaside for consolation…”

Why is Martyn Lloyd-Jones so strong with his words? Because he understood the importance of the church in the life of the believer. He knew that the church is a group of believers “banded together.” He believed that one of the evidences of genuine faith in Christ is a love for God, a love for God’s Word, and a love for God’s people.

We tend to make time for what we consider important. For Martyn Lloyd-Jones, few things were more important than gathering with other Christians and sitting under the preaching of God’s Word.

Does God Really Desire Faithfulness in Church?

The temptation to give up on the church is not a new one. The original recipients of the letter written to the Hebrews were tempted to stop gathering with the church out of fear—fear of persecution and fear of social contempt. The personal safety and reputation of these churchgoers were on the line. To these beleaguered Christians, the author writes, “… let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some…” (Hebrews 10:24-25 ESV). In other words, God’s agenda for you will never involve giving up on regularly gathering in a local church.


Credits

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Hebrews 10:24-25 and all other Scripture). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Life Together, trans. John W. Doberstein (San Francisco: Harper, 1954), 27.

Martyn Lloyd-Jones quoted in Iaian Murray. The Life of D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones: 1899-1981 (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2013).

Photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash

What Goes Around Comes Around, Sort of

“I have a question,” 47-year-old Susan forced out through the tears. “Is the suffering I’m experiencing now, God’s punishment for making bad decisions when I was a teenager? Like karma?”

For Susan, her view of God and how he works in this world left her defeated and hopeless. Defeated because she couldn’t go back and change her past. Hopeless because she couldn’t escape the judgment she is now experiencing. Her future was accursed and there was nothing anyone could do about it. Susan believed something we are all tempted to believe, that God operates solely on the basis of cause and effect, tit for tat, reward and punishment.

One thought was instantly clear as I considered how to best comfort this hurting lady, “the gospel is superior to karma!” But how?

What Do We Mean When We Talk About Karma?

We’ve all heard people joke about karma or have joked about it ourselves. For instance, a friend makes fun of you for tripping over the curb only to trip over the same curb a few minutes later. You might jokingly respond, “That’s what you get! It’s karma.” Most of the time we are talking about karma not in reference to its Hindu roots but as a kind of cosmic cause and effect. If you are bad today, bad things will happen to you in the future. Alternatively, if you are good today, blessings are in store.

Thankfully, God’s grace (receiving God’s kindness we don’t deserve) and mercy (not receiving God’s judgement we do deserve) move him to act in surprising ways toward us. Specifically, He acted in sending Jesus to die an excruciating death as the wrath-bearing sacrifice in our place. As a result of the gospel, we can experience hope despite our sin and we can find meaning in our suffering.

Hope Despite Sin

One thing our popular understanding of karma gets right is that sin is serious. The selfish and sinful activities we persist in are not ignored. Sin has definite consequences. However, with karma there is no solution for sin, so the only hope is to do better and be better next time. Stop sinning, start living righteously and maybe we will experience some reward. For those who recognize our continual shortcomings, this doesn’t feel much like hope.

In the gospel we also see sin taken seriously. In fact, sin is such a grave offense it cost Jesus his very life. The hope of the gospel, then, is not that sin is no big deal and is taken lightly by God. Rather, the good news is that “He does not deal with us according to our sin, nor repay us according to our iniquities” (Psalm 103:10). Grace is the opposite of karma. At the cross, we see that God the Father dealt with God the Son “according to our iniquities,” so that he might deal with us like sons and daughters. Jesus got what was coming to us, so that we might get what was coming to him.

The gospel offers real hope by offering a solution for sin without diminishing the reality and gravity of sin. At the cross we see that this hope doesn’t rest in our ability to create our own good fortune, but is found in the Rescuer, Jesus Christ.

Purpose in Suffering

If our view of God is little more than Christianized karma, we will inevitably view suffering as meaningless punishment for past offenses. We are not alone in wanting to make a straight line connection between our suffering and our sin. Job’s friends were less than helpful in insisting that his difficulty was the direct result of his wrongdoing. The disciples, as well, looked upon a man born blind and wondered aloud, “who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2 ESV). Certainly, suffering can be the direct result of sin (See Numbers 12; 2 Samuel 12). However, the disciples were so confident that this was the only explanation that they did not ask if this man’s blindness was the result of sin, they asked whose sin caused the blindness.

In response to the simplistic assumption of the disciples, Jesus responds, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9:3 ESV). Jesus asserts that there is a deeper purpose for this man’s suffering. He is not actually paying the price for his sin or that of his parents. There is more to his circumstances than karma. Instead, his suffering is meant to be a demonstration of the glory of God.

A truly Christian understanding of suffering makes room for multiple purposes for our trials. We see in the gospel that God takes the most undeserved suffering–the sinless Son of God tortured to death–and brings about the ultimate good. Through the cross, God displays his glory in unparalleled fashion in accomplishing our salvation. What might have looked like meaningless suffering from the outside was God’s good plan to demonstrate his grace and mercy to an undeserving world.

We may never know all that God is up to in our suffering. I suppose Joseph wasn’t pondering what it would be like to be one of the most powerful persons in the world while he was being sold into slavery or falsely accused and imprisoned (Genesis 35-50). We may not have all the answers, however, we can rely on two truths to encourage us: 1) God is using trials in our lives as a means to glorify himself by making us like Jesus (Rom. 8:28-29). 2) God is with us and for us, even when our circumstances would suggest otherwise (Rom. 8:35-39).

No suffering is enjoyable, but suffering without purpose is unbearable. The gospel teaches us that God is active in our suffering by making us more like Jesus. Furthermore, God is likely up to more than making us like Jesus. Similar to Joseph’s story, we can trust that God is working in a thousand ways that we may not discern for some time. Finding real meaning in our suffering can flood our hearts with hope even in the darkest moments.

In Closing

The gospel does not mean we can continue sinning and escape any consequences for our disobedience. God will not be mocked (Galatians 6:7). It does mean that God is not sitting in heaven arbitrarily dishing out punishment for sins we committed decades ago. It does mean that there is the hope of real forgiveness because real justice was poured out on Jesus at Calvary. It does mean that God uses suffering to bring about his good agenda of displaying his glory through making us like Christ. The gospel is greater than karma because it provides hope for our sin and meaning in our suffering.


The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (John 9:2-3 and all other Scripture). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

Photo by Greg Jeanneau on Unsplash

My Worth and My Unworthiness

Imagine King David stepping out onto the roof of his house on a cool, clear evening and staring up into the night sky (having learned his lesson not to stare down at others). As he ponders the magnitude of God’s creation, the thought enters his mind, “… what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him? Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor.” Psalm 8:4-5 (ESV). David is immediately struck by two truths that seem to be in tension with one another:

  1. The insignificance of humanity in relation to God.
  2. The significance bestowed on humanity by God.

Like many doctrines in tension (e.g. God’s sovereignty & man’s free will, God’s love & God’s wrath, etc.), it is easy to sympathize with one above the other. We are tempted to believe we need to diminish one to uphold the other. However, in order to have a proper understanding of who we are, we must affirm both our insignificance and our significance, our unworthiness and our worth, our depravity and our dignity.

What is Man that You Are Mindful of Him?

Two characteristics of humanity cause David to ponder our insignificance. First, we are created. As David considered the ease with which God created the entire universe, he began to wonder why such a powerful God would ever take notice of man. After all, the moon and the stars are the work of God’s fingers. Why would God stoop so low as to care about an individual, even someone as powerful as King David?

Not only are we created beings, but we are rebels against our Creator. Genesis 3 records what is commonly referred to as the Fall. Adam and Eve were given one prohibition not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Naturally, a prohibition seemed intriguing and with a little help from the Tempter, they disobeyed God. Since that tragic moment rebellion has been characteristic of humanity. In light of our rebellion against this all-powerful God, we stand before God as unworthy beings. Certainly, as unworthy beings God views us as worthless, right? Not so fast.

Crowned With Glory and Honor

It is clear from the opening pages of Scripture that man is the crowning glory of God’s creation. The fast-paced creation narrative slows down when it describes the origin of Adam and Eve. God rewinds in Genesis 2 for a closer look at man’s creation. Despite the immensity of the universe, it is man who has been “crowned with glory and honor” (Psalm 8:5). There is something significant about mankind that sets us apart from the rest of creation. The distinctive feature of humanity is that we are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27). Herman Bavinck says it this way, “…among all creatures only man is the image of God, the highest and richest revelation of God and therefore head and crown of the entire creation.”

We are crowned with glory and honor because we are made in the likeness of the King of Glory. It is this high position and calling of being an image bearer that makes humanity dignified above the rest of creation. R. C. Sproul sums it up well, “Man’s dignity rests in God who assigns an inestimable worth to every person. Man’s origin is not an accident, but a profoundly intelligent act by One who has eternal value; by One who stamps His own image on each person.” As those made in the image of the infinitely worthy God, we possess worth and dignity that far surpasses the rest of creation.

Our significance, our worth, and our dignity are grounded in the truth that we are created in the image of God. This is important because many Christians have overreacted to the self-esteem/self-worth movement by insisting that we are worthless. It can sound righteous to say, “we are trash, we are worthless, we are nothing.” However, in affirming both the unworthiness and worth of man, David simultaneously rejects a therapeutic—improve your life by improving your self-worth— view of man and an overly spiritualized—man is totally worthless—view of man.

What does it mean to be created in the image of God?

If our dignity comes from being made in the image of God, we must have a firm grasp of what it means to be an image bearer. There are two primary features of the image of God. First, God created us like himself in many ways. We are not God; we are not little gods; we will never be gods; we are, however, made “in his likeness” (James 3:9). As those who are made in the likeness of God, we can think, feel, speak, desire, choose, create, and relate on a level that is unknown to the rest of creation. This is possible because we are made in the image of God who thinks, speaks, desires, chooses, creates, and relates.

God not only endows every person with immense worth by stamping them with his image, but he also commands each person to reflect his image by obeying his Word. This is the second aspect of being made in God’s image. We were created in the likeness of God, so that we might represent him as living, breathing pictures (images) of him. One of the most important ways we were supposed to do this was by reflecting God’s character. We were designed to be holy because God is holy, just because God is just, Kind because God is kind, etc.

Unfortunately, we continually fail to reflect his image. Though we remain image bearers in our essence, we imperfectly mirror him as a result of our sin. The irony of sin is that we use the very abilities we have as image bearers and use them for our sinful gratification. For instance, We abuse our ability to communicate by engaging in slander and gossip. We abuse our ability to reason by rationalizing our sin away. We abuse our ingenuity to find new ways to rebel against him.

Our Ultimate Hope

Needless to say, the answer is not found within ourselves. We needed another to come to our rescue. Surprisingly, the rescuer came in the form of an image bearer. God became a man. He became the image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15) and the perfect picture of God’s glory (Hebrews 1:3). Our ultimate hope rests in Jesus, the perfect image of God, who himself became a little lower than the angels. Hebrews 2:9 says, “But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone” (ESV). He tasted death for us by bearing the wrath of God on the cross that we deserved. He rose from the grave offering forgiveness and reconciliation to all those who would turn away from their sin and rely on his finished work.

In God’s wisdom and grace he begins to transform his followers into the image of Christ. We progressively begin to look more and more like the perfect image-bearer. What was broken at the fall begins to be restored until one day the recreating work of God will be complete as we become fully like Christ when we are with him in eternity (1 John 3:2). We will perfectly image God forever.


Credits

Photo by Marc-Olivier Jodoin on Unsplash

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Ps 8:4-5). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

RC Sproul. In Search of Dignity (Ventura, CA: Regal, 1983), 94.

Herman Bavinck. Reformed Dogmatics Vol. 2: God and Creation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004) 531.