How Should We Cope with Burdens at Christmastime?

If the nativity scenes in your house are like the ones in mine, there’s no hint that the characters experienced difficulty or pain surrounding the birth of Jesus. Shepherds, wise men, Mary, and Joseph all admire the Christ child in the warm glow of a cozy stable, smiles on their faces. Of course, Christmas did bring warmth and joy to these characters. But have you also considered the difficulty and strain they experienced surrounding Christ’s birth? Thinking about their circumstances reminds us that for God’s people, great burden and great blessing often coincide.

Take Mary. The angel Gabriel appeared to her in Nazareth announcing that she was “favored” by God (Luke 1:28). But her circumstances probably didn’t make her feel favored. When she became pregnant by a supernatural work of the Holy Spirit, friends and family surely cast dispersion on her, believing her baby was the result of sexual immorality and not a miracle. That’s what Joseph, her godly husband-to-be, thought until an angel told him differently (Matthew 1:19). For Mary, God’s favor led to stigma and having her plans for family life turned upside down.1

The situation was similar for Joseph. He planned to take Mary as his wife then build a family. God’s miraculous intervention was so jarring that his first thought was to divorce Mary before the angel explained. After Jesus was born, Joseph continued to experience hardship and interruption. When King Herod sought to kill Jesus, Joseph had to uproot his family and relocate to Egypt until Herod’s death.

The wise men weren’t exempt from burden either. In addition to the long journey required to find Jesus (they likely came from Babylonia, Persia, or even the Far East), protecting Him meant defying a king who wasn’t afraid to murder his enemies (Matthew 2:1-18).

What about the shepherds? When angels appeared to them in the fields surrounding Bethlehem, they were “filled with fear” (Luke 2:9). Then they had to leave their source of livelihood in the middle of the night to go worship Jesus (Luke 2:8-20), presumably an unsettling prospect for conscientious keepers of sheep.

Of course, the characters in the Christmas story experienced joy and blessing upon seeing Jesus. In that sense, warm nativity scenes are completely accurate. Scripture gives us no hint that they grumbled about the difficulties surrounding their trip to Bethlehem. Still, each of them had to endure burdens in order to trust God and honor His Son.

BusyChristmasThis should comfort believers who find themselves burdened at Christmastime. After all, the holiday season, despite its joys, is a time when people feel lonely, depressed, overwhelmed by consumerism, and weighted down in myriad other ways. When facing such struggles, we should consider the example of Mary, Joseph, the wise men, and the shepherds. They too were burdened. But amid their burdens, they experienced the greatest blessing they would ever know by taking time to focus on Jesus.

German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer did the same when he found himself spending Christmas in prison for defying the Nazi regime during World War II. In a letter to his fiancée, he explained why he expected “an exceptionally good Christmas.”

“I used to be very fond of thinking up and buying presents,” he wrote, “but now that we have nothing to give, the gift God gave us in the birth of Christ will seem all the more glorious . . . The poorer our quarters, the more clearly we perceive that our hearts should be Christ’s home on earth.” This Christmas know that you’re not alone in your trials. But amid them, take time to appreciate the greatest blessing imaginable: friendship with Jesus and assurance of His eternal love.

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1 Content of this paragraph and the inspiration for this entire post are drawn from a sermon preached by Hershael York at Buck Run Baptist Church in Frankfort, Kentucky, December 15, 2013.
2 This article was originally posted on the BibleMesh Blog on December 23, 2013.

Evangelism: Empowered But Not Easy

It’s not uncommon to hear claims that sharing the Gospel is easy and that any follower of Jesus can lead nonbelievers to faith with relative ease, given the right method. Such claims aren’t entirely without merit. Evangelism is simpler than it’s portrayed at times, and any believer can do it. Yet examples from Scripture demonstrate it can be far from easy:

  • For Moses, faithfully sharing God’s Word meant standing eye to eye with a tyrannical pharaoh, declaring Yahweh’s identity, and calling the Egyptian leader to repent of his wickedness (Exodus 7-12).
  • Daniel called King Nebuchadnezzar to repent and follow the Lord (Daniel 4:27) even though the Babylonian monarch had demonstrated a willingness to execute followers of Yahweh when their actions appeared to undermine his authority (Daniel 3:1-30).
  • Stephen was stoned to death for preaching the Gospel to Jewish leaders (Acts 7:1-60).
  • For the apostle Paul, preaching the Gospel led to 39 lashes on five occasions; three beatings with rods; stoning; three shipwrecks; “danger from rivers . . . robbers . . . [his] own people [and] Gentiles”; “toil and hardship”; sleepless nights; hunger and thirst; and “cold and exposure” (2 Corinthians 11:24-27). Eventually, he was executed for his bold witness.
  • For preaching the message of Christ, Peter was arrested by Jewish leaders (Acts 4), arrested by King Herod (Acts 12:1-5), and eventually executed as Jesus had predicted (John 21:18-19).
  • The apostle John was arrested and beaten by the Jewish leaders as a younger man (Acts 4) and exiled to the island of Patmos in his old age (Revelation 1:9).

Even in giving the Great Commission, Jesus implied the difficulty of the task at hand by telling His followers, “All authority has been given to me” and commanding them to “remember” that He would go with them in the work of disciple-making (Matthew 28:18-20, CSB). It was a task possible only through Christ’s authority and with His personal presence. As Robertson McQuilkin and Paul Copan put it, merely “operating by technique, method and programming” without accompanying “reliance on the Spirit” will not yield “lasting, spiritual fruit.”[1]

That’s why the promise of the Great Commission is an essential companion of the command to “go” and “make disciples of all nations.” Overcoming the obstacles of fear, doubt, and opposition is possible only when we rely on the Spirit and grace of God. Paul said he “worked” at evangelism and church planting, “though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” (1 Corinthians 15:10). On another occasion, Paul said he “proclaimed” Christ, “struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me” (Colossians 1:28-29).

As it was in the Old and New Testaments, calling nonbelievers to follow the Lord can be difficult today. Yet when we remember Christ’s personal presence and, by faith, rely on His authority in our witness, we will find that the Gospel is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16).

[1] Robertson McQuilkin and Paul Copan, An Introduction to Biblical Ethics: Walking in the Way of Wisdom, 3rd edition (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014), 88.

The “Life-Fire” of God’s Word—Charles H. Spurgeon (1834-1892)

In 1854, at the age of twenty and just four years after his conversion, Charles H. Spurgeon became pastor of London’s New Park Street Church. His ministry so grew that the 6,000-seat Metropolitan Tabernacle was built to accommodate the congregation. In “The Mustard Seed: A Sermon for the Sabbath-School Teacher,” he spoke of the power of the gospel, and his words extended to the whole of Scripture.

The human can never rival the divine, for it lacks the life-fire. It is better to preach five words of God’s Word than five million words of man’s wisdom. Men’s words may seem to be the wiser and more attractive, but there is no heavenly life in them. Within God’s Word, however simple it may be, there dwells an omnipotence like that of God, from whose lips it came.1

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1 C. H. Spurgeon, “The Mustard Seed: A Sermon for the Sabbath-School Teacher,” The Parables of Our Lord (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 2003), 707.


Christian Missionary & Explorer: David Livingstone (1813-1873)

Even though David Livingstone had spent extensive time exploring Africa during his lifetime, it was not normal and certainly worrying when no one heard from the famous missionary-doctor-explorer for several months in 1871. Henry Stanley, a journalist for the New York Herald and explorer, set out to find Livingstone. He finally found the old man in October 1871 near central Africa’s Lake Tanganyika. The wearied journalist greeted the aged doctor with the famous words, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” With new supplies provided by Stanley, Livingstone was able to continue his efforts to find the source of the Nile.[i] He died on May 1, 1873, a result of years of poor health.[ii]

Livingstone’s grit and determination were apparent even in his boyhood. The second son of a poor family living in Blantyre near Glasgow, he began working a 14-hour day in a local cotton factory when he was only 10 years old. Determined to educate himself, he learned Latin from a grammar book propped up on his spinning jenny, and by means of attending a company school after an arduous day’s work, he went on to acquire a knowledge of geography, science, and other subjects which eventually enabled him to enter Glasgow University at the age of 23 to study Greek, medicine, and theology. Accepted in 1837 as a probationer by the London Missionary Society, Livingstone dreamed of becoming a missionary in China but was prevented from doing so by the outbreak of the Opium War. Instead, he received his call to Africa while attending a meeting addressed by another great missionary, Dr. Robert Moffat, who was speaking about his mission station at Kuruman in South Africa. When he heard Moffat say, “On a clear morning, I can see from the hills near Kuruman, the smoke of a thousand villages where no missionary has ever been,” Livingstone knew what his life’s work would be.[iii]

From 1840 until his death in 1873, Livingstone traveled the length and breadth of Central Africa, penetrating and mapping its interior, preaching the gospel to tribesmen who had never been reached before, healing the sick, and showing the natives how to irrigate their fields and improve their agriculture. The London Missionary Society, then the British government, and finally private donors financed his travels.[iv] He explored over 11,000 miles of unknown country and was the first white man to cross Africa from west to east. During his many and varied journeys he recorded his observations of the geology, botany, and wildlife of the regions he visited, and most important of all, he discovered and exposed the dreadful cruelties of the Arab-dominated slave trade. As well as freeing slaves whenever he could, Livingstone’s published diaries and reports persuaded Britain to take action against the slave-trafficking Sultan of Zanzibar in the 1870s—though Livingstone himself did not live to see it.[v]

Perhaps his most telling legacy, however, is the untarnished memory of himself left in the minds and hearts of generations of ordinary Africans. Many towns, streets, and buildings were named after him, and although decolonization led to many name changes in Africa, most of those named after Livingstone have remained.[vi] Generations of missionaries and evangelists, white and black, have followed in his footsteps. To quote the testimony of an old African who saw Livingstone in his boyhood: “…there was love in his eyes, he was not fierce. He made a path through our land, and you his followers have come, God’s Light-bringers; and more come today.”[vii]

The Bible teaches that “perfect love casts out fear,” and surely this was the source of David Livingstone’s courage.

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Endnotes

[i] “David Livingstone (1817-1873),” BBC Online, http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/livingstone_david.shtml (accessed June 15, 2017).

[ii] The inscription on his tomb in London’s Westminster Abbey read, “For 30 years his life was spent in an unwearied effort to evangelise the native races, to explore the undiscovered secrets, to abolish the desolating slave trade of Central Africa, where with his last words he wrote, ‘All I can add in my solitude, is, may Heaven’s rich blessing come down on every one, American, English, or Turk, who will help to heal this open sore of the world.’” See Rob Mackenzie, David Livingstone: The Truth behind the Legend (England: Kingsway, 1993), 377.

[iii] R. J. Unstead, People in History: From Caractacus to Alexander Fleming (London: Adam & Charles Black, 1957) 446-447; and John Canning, ed., 100 Great Lives (London: Century, 1975), 488-489.

[iv] Livingstone was an official missionary in Africa with the London Missionary Society from 1840 to 1856. From 1858 to 1864, he carried out official explorations for the British government. He returned to African again from 1864 until his death, funded by private support.

[v] See Unstead, 455-457; Canning, 489; and Mackenzie, chapters 13 and 19.

[vi] Like Blantyre in Malawi, for instance. See Mackenzie, 16.

[vii] Ibid., 374.

Honor, Live Long, and Prosper

Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you.

Exodus 20:12 (NIV)

Americans are obsessed, or so it seems, with living a long and healthy life. It should come as no surprise then that products promising the same enjoy widespread popularity. For example, Kevin Trudeau’s Natural Cures “They” Don’t Want You to Know About, a book that suggests herbal remedies can cure diabetes and cancer, sold five million copies by the close of 2005. Reflecting on the phenomenon one doctor has said, “Some people appear to be under the assumption that they’re going to be the very first person to cheat death.” Now certainly there is nothing wrong with wanting to be healthy. But for all of the time and effort spent on vitamins, whole foods, and Pilates instructors, relatively fewer folks seem to pay attention to a more traditional and time-honored path for long life: honoring one’s parents.

The Fifth Commandment holds a unique place within the Decalogue. As the first directive in the so-called “second table” of the commandments, the Lord prioritized this act of obedience as the foundation of all righteous human-to-human relationships. The Hebrew verb for honor (kabad) carries with it the connotation of “making something weighty.” In other words, in God’s eyes, it is a very serious thing to give your parents the respect—or gravitas—they deserve. This act of obedience is even to be done without reference to the quality of a parent’s parenting. The Fifth Commandment is to be followed at all times and all places and especially when a child becomes an adult. Even when a parent provokes his son to anger or asks him to do something wrong, God will always provide a way for the child to honor the parent, even if obedience, strictly defined, is not an option.

Honoring one’s father and mother provides the necessary support for creating a culture of life. For the parent, it secures the right not to be humiliated by his offspring in the prime of his life, nor to be abandoned or left destitute in his senior years. For the child, the rewards are even more compelling. The Apostle Paul calls the fifth injunction in the Decalogue “the first commandment with a promise” (Eph. 6:2); namely, that “you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you.” The text means exactly what it says. Vibrant life and spiritual prosperity characterize those who live in accordance with God’s word in this respect. Anyone who embraces this divine vision for reality should expect to experience the “good life” in its fullest and most satisfying sense.

In a culture that despises both the very old and the very young, citizens of the modern world need to hear the lessons of the Fifth Commandment afresh. Commitment to the family does not end when one leaves home. This means that children, particularly when they are grown, must diligently work to protect and care for their father and mother. Never should it be said that saints of God just wasted away in quiet desperation and loneliness, cut off from their children.

When the world looks upon the sons and daughters of the kingdom of God, they should be able to see a host of blessed and honored parents. There are certainly not many guarantees in this life, but the Bible promises a rich and fulfilling existence to those individuals who place the needs of their mothers and fathers above their own.

How to Minister amid Transgenderism

Transgender_symbolVirginia pastor John Pouchot ministered in evangelical congregations for more than a decade before he first encountered a family dealing with transgenderism in 2013. After Pouchot led a man to faith in Christ, his extended family began attending church and Pouchot learned the man’s high school-aged niece wanted to be a boy. Despite counseling the girl’s parents to the contrary, she underwent hormone therapy and began presenting as a boy. The experience left Pouchot convinced pastors like him will encounter transgenderism—and its root condition of gender dysphoria—with increasing frequency in the years to come and must be prepared to respond.[1]

Christians trained to counsel those struggling with gender confusion agree with Pouchot’s assessment and have offered suggestions for pastors and laypeople seeking to make a difference among those who do not feel at home with their God-given gender. In at least some cases, the following actions should be undertaken in conjunction with help from a trained, Christian mental health professional.

  1. Recognize the difference between struggling with gender dysphoria and identifying with the opposite gender. Gender dysphoria is the technical term for the condition of not feeling at home in one’s body in terms of gender. One response to gender dysphoria is to present as the opposite gender, but that is not the only response. As with same-sex attraction, gender dysphoria is often an unwanted feeling that is battled by those who experience it.[2]
  2. Listen. Often, simply talking to those struggling with gender identity and listening to their stories will begin a restoration. As North Carolina professor and counseling pastor Brad Hambrick put it, “Not having an immediate next answer may feel a little frail and helpless to the pastor.” But “that is the kind of [response] that [can lead a struggling person to] say, ‘You get me.’”[3]
  3. Help struggling people manage their dysphoria “in the least invasive way possible.”[4] In many cases, this is as simple as compassionately befriending a teenager until he or she “outgrows” feelings of gender dysphoria—as 70-80% of children reporting “transgender feelings” do. In no case, is so-called gender reassignment surgery appropriate. Not only is such surgery a sinful rejection of God’s good gift of gender, secular researchers have concluded it tends not to alleviate mental distress. A Swedish study found that a decade following gender reassignment surgery, “the transgendered began to experience increasing mental difficulties,” including a twentyfold increase in suicide rate.[5]
  4. Urge individuals who have identified as the opposite gender to admit their sin and ask God for forgiveness. While experiencing unwanted feelings is not a sin, responding to them by shunning the Lord’s providential gender assignment is (cf. Genesis 1:27; 1 Corinthians 6:9). Without a doubt, turning from transgenderism often involves dealing with past emotional wounds and complex medical realities. But such actions should come in addition to confession, not in lieu of it.
  5. Help those who have identified as the opposite gender transition back to their God-given gender as much as possible. At minimum, this will involve dressing as the appropriate gender and ceasing hormone therapy. For those who have undergone gender reassignment surgery, it likely will mean concealing surgical alterations as much as possible. When financial and medical conditions permit, some types of surgery may be reversed. The transition also will involve deciding whether marriage or chaste singleness is the most appropriate path forward.[6]

This list is not exhaustive. And as with many struggles, the road to healing can be difficult, with sinful temptations from the past reemerging from time to time. Yet Christian therapists have reported “huge success” in battling gender dysphoria, including a success rate of nearly 80% for transgender people who want to change.[7]

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Endnotes

[1] David Roach, “Transgenderism Is Growing Ministry Focus,” Baptist Press, May 4, 2016, http://www.bpnews.net/46796/transgenderism-is-growing-ministry-focus (accessed August 1, 2016).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Mark Yarhouse, “Understanding the Transgender Phenomenon,” Christianity Today, June 8, 2015, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2015/july-august/understanding-transgender-gender-dysphoria.html?start=5 (accessed August 1, 2016).

[5] Paul McHugh, “Transgender Surgery Isn’t the Solution,” The Wall Street Journal, June 12, 2014, http://www.wsj.com/articles/paul-mchugh-transgender-surgery-isnt-the-solution-1402615120 (accessed August 1, 2016).

[6] Roach, “Transgenderism is Growing Ministry Focus.”

[7] Bob [last name omitted intentionally], “Steps for Healing,” Help for Families Website, n. d., http://help4families.com/steps-toward-healing (accessed August 1, 2016).