The Most Damaging Lie: “It’s No Use”

One of the most pernicious and damaging lies, also one of the most pervasive, told by people to others and to themselves is: “It’s no use.” Variations on this falsehood include: “It doesn’t matter, anyway”; “Nothing I do makes any difference”; “I’ve tried everything and nothing works.”

On a macro, societal level, this deceit runs something like this: “They are just going to do what they are going to do.” They – my mother knew “them” well and frequently referred to “them” – are the invisible movers and shakers of society. “They say”; “They always win”; “You know they aren’t going to let anything as reasonable as that happen.”

On a political/governmental level, the lie expresses itself in terms like these: “I’m just one person. My vote doesn’t matter. My voice doesn’t make any difference. Nobody cares about the little guy.”

The lie becomes more destructive as it filters down to the relationship level. The more intimate the relationship, the more damage the lie causes. How many marriages have ended badly after one party or the other began to say, “It’s no use. Nothing is ever going to change.” To say, “It’s no use,” is to rob a person, especially oneself, of hope and, when hope dies, so do relationships.

The relationship between parent and child can suffer irreparable harm from the effects of this lie. When a child tells himself, “It’s no use. Nothing I do will ever please my parent,” the direction of that child’s life will change. When parents tell themselves, “It’s no use,” they are in danger of giving up on their God-given charge of loving, shaping, and sharing in their child’s life. A child’s relationship with a parent can survive many sins and rebellions, but it can be done in by the lie, “It’s no use.”

The lie is, however, deadliest of all when spoken to oneself. To say, “It’s no use,” and believe it, makes addictions unbreakable and relationships irreconcilable. When a person tells himself, Lynyrd Skynyrd-style, “It’s no use. Lord knows I can’t change,” his life is headed toward chaos and ruin.

A reader might object, “But in my case, it’s true: it really is no use.” That reader needs to understand that almost everyone, at one time or another, has believed the same thing and has been mistaken, so it is at least possible the demurring reader is also mistaken.

The lie, “It’s no use,” draws its power, like all lies, from a false image of how things really are. In this case, the false image of a static reality which we are powerless to change. But the thing about reality is that it is woven of billions of threads (or “strings” or “membranes,” if you are a physicist), and the thread that is in our hand may unravel the way things are and remake them. Rosa Parks, for example, pulled one string on a bus in 1955 and America began to change.

The Bible does not picture reality as static, as if it were the fixed stage on which we play our parts. Rather, the Bible pictures a reality that bends and adapts itself to the choices we make. As such, we have a God-given role, and the dignity that goes with it, to shape reality, including ourselves. We are not creators in the absolute sense that God is, but we are “sub-creators,” to use Dorothy Sayer’s term, with the momentous responsibility of cooperating with God in his construction project known as reality.

That construction project includes, as our area of oversight, the completion of ourselves as individuals. This is done under God’s authority and in cooperation with him. God, as the Bible strikingly portrays him, is like a potter. If, for some reason, the piece he is working on does not take its intended shape – does not “cooperate” – God will shape it into some other useful piece.

It is clear that God is flexible. He is willing – that is, he wills – to work with people. He allows them room to become themselves by making their own choices. So, to say, “It’s no use,” is both to abdicate one’s responsibility and repudiate God’s reliability. As long as God is in heaven and we are on earth, things can change.

First published by Gatehouse Media

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Tower of Babel

In Genesis 11:1-9, we read that some men gave up the nomadic way of life, banded together and built a city.  They said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”

The tower is, of course, the Tower of Babel.  Scholars think the word Babel originally meant, “The gateway of God.”  So here a new twist is introduced into the story.  We have people who are trying to access heaven at the same time they are resisting God.  They want to bring down the blessings of heaven upon the disobedience of earth. But earth cannot command heaven, nor can men resist God and still receive his blessing.2

The construction of a bridge from heaven to earth can only start in heaven.  No matter what materials humanity uses to build that bridge – social engineering, religion, education, morality – none will reach nearly far enough.  If a bridge is to be built, God must build it.

The question for the reader of the first eleven chapters of Genesis is, will he?  His sub-creator and designated ruler had fallen, sin had spread and devastation threatened the rest of his creation. Would he now quarantine earth and let the disease run its course? Would he close the book on humanity and abandon it to its doom, or would he build a bridge that will reach from heaven?  We learn later that the plans for such a bridge were already in place, and have been so since before the foundation of the world.3  And those plans began with a solitary man named Abram.

This, by the way, is a theme that runs throughout the whole story.  Men organize, as they did on the plains of Shinar, when they built their tower.  Humanity thinks in terms of multitudes and power.  Safety depends on, and success is gauged by, numbers.

But God thinks in terms of individuals.  When humanity tries to accomplish something, it begins by calling in favors, tallying votes, amassing numbers.  But instead of calling in favors, God grants favor; instead of tallying votes, he elects his own way; instead of amassing numbers, he narrows the field.

              2 See Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God. IVP © 2006.  p. 196

              3 Revelation 13:8

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Money Talks – and it is talking about you!

When I was a kid, Edgar Bergen was the most famous ventriloquist in America. His monocle-wearing dummy Charlie McCarthy enjoyed better name recognition than many Hollywood celebrities. Charlie was always saying things that embarrassed Edgar, but of course everything Charlie said came right out of Edgar’s mouth. Just so, money speaks; in fact, like Charlie, it never shuts up. But what it says comes right out of us. So, what is your money saying?

A message from James 5:1-6.

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Religion Is Not an End in Itself

It’s one of the hardest things for religious people to understand: religion is not an end in itself. It is not a hobby. It is not even a passion. Religion is not part of a self-improvement program.

The reason to believe in God is that he exists. If he does not exist, then believing in God is not right, even if it helps people sleep better at night or makes them easier to be around. Similarly, religious behavior, as commonly understood, only makes sense if it helps people engage life as it really is.

Sometimes people get the idea they are Christians because they assent to certain doctrinal statements about God, the death and resurrection of Jesus, and humanity’s eternal destiny. It often does not occur to them that these doctrines were not formulated to garner assent but to express reality.

The biblical instructions about how to behave are, likewise, intended to guide people into a lifestyle that harmonizes with reality – with the way things really are. Learning God’s “ways” is not about getting a good grade on a report card but about living well. So Moses told his people: “Walk in all the way that the LORD your God has commanded you, so that you may live and prosper…”

That there is a way for people who believe in God to live is a new thought to some, but a familiar one to those who know the Bible. It frequently speaks of “God’s way” and the “way of the Lord.” The request in Psalm 86 representative of many biblical prayers: “Teach me your way, O Lord, and I will walk in your truth.”

“God’s way” is not a cultural, western way, though many 19th century English and American missionaries made the mistake of thinking so. Rather, God’s way both transcends particular cultures and is applicable in every culture. It is a path anyone can follow, wherever they find themselves, though it must be said that those who follow this way usually go in the opposite direction of the general flow of traffic.  

This way is often quite specific. There are paths to follow and paths to avoid. One should avoid the oft-traveled path of using words to manipulate people into doing one’s will. Stay away from lies. Respect people. Don’t judge. Avoid using derogatory language. Never treat people as sexual objects. Honor parents. Pray for enemies. Speak well of those who speak badly of you.

These are just a few paths along the “way of the Lord.” They tend to be precise, not vague, since vague directions are of little help. They cannot be boiled down to a platitude, any more than directions to an address in a distant city can be summarized in a word.

Yet, very often religious people seem to think that the directions given to God’s people can be reduced to something like “Be nice.” That is analogous to telling someone in Iowa that to get to the intersection of Forest Drive and Hicks Avenue in Annapolis, Maryland they must go east. It’s not that it isn’t true; it just isn’t very helpful.

When Jesus invited people to learn from him, he was expressing his willingness to help them find and walk in the ways of the Lord. He did not intend to pile burdens on people but to remove them, so they could live well in the real world.

But trying to remember all the ways of the Lord and follow them, sometimes across difficult terrain, would be too much even for the best people. So God not only tells people his ways, he accompanies them.

When I was young, our family was passing through Toronto when we temporarily lost our way. We could see the highway but couldn’t find the entrance ramp. My dad, very uncharacteristically, stopped for directions. When my mother rolled down the window, the French-speaking Canadian she asked simply opened the door and climbed in. He then directed us turn by turn to our destination.

This is similar to what God does for those who ask. He doesn’t merely give them a thousand directions to follow; he climbs in. He gives them his Spirit to guide them.

First published by Gatehouse Media, Inc.

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What’s Your Pleasure

(James 4:1-12; listening time: 26:09

For some family members, church members, and co-workers, spats and verbal conflicts are a part of life. When things get so bad they can’t take it anymore, they leave – the family, the church, the job. Sometimes they become part of another family, another church, or another workplace, only to see the same pattern emerge all over again. And they don’t know why. In this message, we explore what can be done to change conflict in our lives and, even more importantly, what can be done to change us.

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Jesus and the Psychology of Happiness

Popular psychology has been transitioning over the past couple of decades. It’s happier now or, at least, it’s talking about happiness more than it did.

For generations, psychology was principally interested in pathology, in aberrant and self-defeating behaviors. Psychiatry has helped the world find relief from life-crushing mental illnesses and has improved the lives of millions of sufferers. Antidepressants, antipsychotics, and other routinely prescribed medications have proved enormously helpful.

In recent years, research in the field of psychology increasingly has turned toward the light rather than away from the darkness; that is, has turned its attention to gaining happiness rather than to treating pathology. This is not just pop psychology going through a phase. A quick search of Google Scholar will confirm academia’s growing interest in positive psychology.

John Ortberg points out that psychologists who focus their efforts on helping people achieve happiness will inevitably find themselves using values-laden language. They cannot help but enter the arena of ethics and morality, where the experts have not been scientists but philosophers and religious authorities. They frequently cite the Buddha, Aristotle, Confucius, and others.

Ortberg has noticed the one person they do not quote: Jesus. This is surprising because Jesus has done more to shape western culture’s understanding of the good life than any other thinker, ancient or modern. Ortberg suggests a reason for this omission: mental health professionals are five times as likely as the rest of us to self-identify as atheists.

But there may be another, more immediate, reason. Aristotle talked about happiness; Jesus didn’t. For Aristotle, the question of how to be happy was central, since he believed that happiness was the truest indicator of the good life. (However, it should be said that Aristotle’s conception of happiness and the good life is largely foreign to modern psychology and would appear uninviting to many Americans.)

Although Jesus did not talk about happiness as such, he did talk about joy, which he saw as the result of the good life. He did not see joy as the sap running through the tree but as the fruit the healthy tree produces. For Jesus, it is righteousness – right relationships with God and people – not happiness, that is key.

Unlike the Utilitarian school of thought, which sees happiness as life’s ultimate goal and the happiness of the largest number of people as the body politic’s governing principle, Jesus almost entirely ignores happiness. His counsel would, in fact, seem antithetical to the common-sense happiness seeker.

Jesus repeatedly told his students that “whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.” When we hear this – and perhaps his first students were like us on this score – we perceive a paradox but do not recognize any practical counsel. Yet Jesus’s teaching here is utterly practical, founded on his knowledge and experience.

Jesus understood that the surest path to dissatisfaction is the way of preoccupation with oneself. To try to secure one’s life because it is one’s life and not another’s is to lose one’s life, as millions have discovered. To seek a pleasure because it is my pleasure is to let the pleasure slip through my fingers. If you doubt this, try an experiment: the next time you are ravished by some pleasure – a beautiful piece of music, a glorious sunset, or the enjoyment of a perfectly prepared dish – turn your attention to your experience of the pleasure. In that instant, the spell will be broken, the magic will be gone.

Jesus knew that we are most ourselves when we are living for something or someone other than ourselves. Certainly some people have experienced an almost mystical quality of life while collecting butterflies. Others have transcended their limitations in sports or music the moment they have lost themselves and all thought of themselves in the sport or music. In losing their lives they have found them.

According to Jesus’s promise, people who lose their lives for his sake and for the gospel will transcend life’s ultimate limitation: death. They will lose their lives in God, only to find their lives in the eternal joy of being.

First published by Gatehouse Media

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Irrefutable Evidence of the Reign of Death

The Apostle Paul wrote: “. . . just as sin entered the world through one man [Adam], and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned – for before the law was given, sin was in the world. But sin is not taken into account when there is no law. Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses. . .”1           

Paul is telling us that the sin of the original man had spread all through humanity. There are many symptoms that demonstrate the presence of the disease – fear, selfishness, shame, hatred, blaming, lying – but the telltale symptom of sin is death, and death spread to everyone on the earth. Paul says that the later method for diagnosing sin – the law – had not yet been developed, but the evidence of sin’s presence was nonetheless irrefutable: everyone died.

God made man in such a way that, if he sinned, he would die. We think of that as a punishment, but don’t miss the fact that it was also a safety protocol. Because sin, by its nature, multiplies – sort of like compound interest – God in his mercy imposed death on his creatures. Without death, evil would accrue indefinitely, it would multiply geometrically; life would be unbearable and the earth would become uninhabitable.

The question for the reader of the early chapters of the Bible is: Will God now quarantine earth and let the disease run its course? Or will he rescue humanity from itself and the consequences of its terrible choice? In Genesis 12 we learn his decision. He will rescue humanity, and he will begin that costly work with a childless couple named Abram and Sarai.

              3 Revelation 13:8

              1 Romans 5:12-13

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Wise Guy: The Two Kinds of Wisdom in James 3

Who is wise? Who’s got the answers? Who knows how to live the good life? Before you can answer the question “Who is wise?” you need to clarify which kind of wisdom you are talking about. There are two: the kind of wisdom that helps you get what you want and the kind that helps you become who you are meant to be. The first kind is what many people prefer, even if it destroys their relationships and leaves them empty. The second kind is what all people need. It’s ironic: the people who choose the second kind of wisdom usually get what they want and want what they get.

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Get off the Bandwagon of Hate

Six days after the 9/11 attacks, in remarks made at the Islamic Center in Washington, D.C., President George W. Bush told his audience, “These acts of violence against innocents violate the fundamental tenets of the Islamic faith.” He went on to say, “The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That’s not what Islam is all about.”

Many scholars agreed, but other people disputed this, claiming that violence against non-Muslims is grounded in the Koran itself, and cited texts to prove their point. I am not qualified to speak about the Koran but the frequent false claims I’ve heard made about the Bible give me cause for skepticism. I’ve known people to lift biblical passages out of their literary context and the historic realities that surrounded them to “prove” their respective and, sometimes ludicrous, points.

After the 9/11 attacks, there was a backlash against American Muslims that was shameful and wrong. The president spoke candidly about this and condemned it. Now, eighteen years later, I wonder if someone ought not speak as candidly about the acts of violence perpetrated on ethnic minorities by racists and white nationalists and state clearly that such behavior is abhorrent to the people of Jesus, wherever they’re found.

I wonder this because I once sat across the table from a Muslim who told me: “If you’re born in the United States, you are a Christian—unless you are a Jew or a Muslim.” I would not want that man – or anyone else – to think the murderer of worshipers in a Pittsburgh synagogue was a Christian because he was born in the United States. Likewise, it would be a mistake to think that the man who killed Muslims in New Zealand must be a Christian because he is not a Jew or a Muslim.

Hatred, and the violence it breeds, is inimical to the way of Jesus. His people are even forbidden to take revenge against those who hurt them. And it is not just hostile actions that are banned, but hostile attitudes. They are ordered to “get rid of anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from [their] lips.” Jesus and his earliest followers not only condemned violence toward people of other religions or races, they insisted that Jesus’s people show love to such people.

The Bible, which Christians consider divinely inspired, claims that we are aliens. Nevertheless, we have been loved and accepted by earth’s rightful landowner, God, who insists we follow suit. We are commanded “to love those who are aliens.” The biblical writer states that God “watches over” and “loves the alien,” and Christ’s people are expected to love and watch over them too.

Jesus goes even further: we are not only commanded to love strangers, but enemies – the people who seek to do us harm. White supremacists see people of other races and ethnicities as a threat to their way of life and desire harm to come to them. But Jesus tells his followers they must love even the people who oppose them, pray for them, and do good to them.

No one said that following Jesus would be easy.

The Bible not only commands God’s people to treat aliens with love and justice, it also provides examples of how to relate to people who serve other gods. Abraham was highly respected by people of other religions because he treated them with respect as friends and neighbors.

The Gospels do not recount many encounters between Jesus and non-Jewish people but when he did relate to non-Jews, he helped them. In fact, his highest praise was reserved for a non-Jewish soldier who served the much-reviled occupational army that subjugated his native land.

Unlike his master, St. Paul’s extensive travels led him into many encounters with people of different faiths. While he announced the good news of Jesus to them unapologetically, he never despised them or ridiculed their religion. He wanted to win them, not subdue them.

Readers who consider themselves Christians but have climbed onto the bandwagon of racial and religious hatred ought to review what Jesus and his apostles did and said. If, after doing so, they stay on that bandwagon, they should at least stop calling themselves Christians.

First published by Gatehouse Media, Inc.

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Tongues of Fire

James 3:1-12. (Listening time: under 24 minutes.)

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