Uncomfortable American Idols

american flag

The Sunday morning Bible study I’ve been participating in is beginning to wrap up a marathon through the Old Testament. It’s an area of the Bible that presents some unique challenges, both in terms of what we can best get out of a covenant no longer binding us as well as in some of the directions classes usually take the Old Testament. I’ve studied these books numerous times now, and certain themes emerge time and again — some helpful to our spiritual development, others less so.

One of those themes that gets brought out every time we get to Aaron and the golden calf or the prophecies of men like Isaiah is that of idolatry. What does idolatry look like in the modern day? Of course the obvious ones come up: wealth, popularity, entertainment. You probably know the drill. I’ve noticed, though, as much as we like to discuss these idols and how they affect the world, we tend to shy away from discussing some common, but uncomfortable, idols that tempt many a conservative Christian.

These idols are uncomfortable for many reasons. They can easily become part of our identity. They are things that can seem good, but they adversely affect our spirituality when they inform our attitudes and conduct overmuch. They become deeply personal. We develop itching ears that want to hear what others are doing wrong, but leave my own idols alone, thank you very much. These are the high places that we turn to without giving them a second thought.

Our Politics

Politics is such a loaded word in American culture. The assumption is that you are for one side or for the other. Christianity and politics have become so intertwined that it’s sometimes hard for a potential convert or new Christian to tell the difference between secular opinions that insinuate themselves into Bible classes and pulpits and the spiritual truths we should be holding as sacred.

The problem with politics is that we begin to let our chosen side’s platform inform how we interpret Scripture. We try to turn secular issues into Biblical ones. We try to use the Bible to defend the second amendment (as if Jesus would ever shoot anyone), to disprove the climate crisis, to promote capitalism as the way. In doing so, we turn people away from God who might otherwise be open to His word.

II Timothy 2:24-25 simply says we should never be quarrelsome but should rather be kind, patient, and gentle teachers. Allowing politics into our hearts leads to the opposite behavior. James 4:1 rhetorically asks what causes quarrels, and the answer is found in our worldly passions. James goes on to call friendship with the world adultery to God, the same word God would use to describe idolatry in the Old Testament. When we elevate political struggles to the same level as spiritual ones, when we allow politics to inform our attitudes and conduct as much as Scripture, then we are committing spiritual idolatry.

Our Nationalism

In Hebrews 11, the author of that book talks about how Abraham left the land of his fathers to seek after God’s promise. It talks about how he did not look back, that he considered himself a foreigner and temporary resident of this world. Philippians 3:20 states that our citizenship is in Heaven, and Ephesians 2:19 calls us citizens of God’s household with Christ as the cornerstone of that house.

How does that harmonize when we then post things online about America first? How does that harmonize with the doctrine of American exceptionalism? When we treat our country’s flag like a sacred object, when we allow patriotism to enter our worship, or when we refuse aid to people based purely on their nationality, we make an idol of our earthly citizenship. While we are to be good citizens as Christians, that does not mean our citizenship defines our Christianity.

Our Freedoms

Have you noticed how closely related these are? These items are more than some car on a showroom floor. They are more than a paycheck. They are deeply integrated with who we are as a culture, and nothing is more deeply rooted in Americanism than freedom. It’s as American a bald eagle wearing a flag bandanna and eating an apple pie.

The problem is that, while we may have certain governmental documents ostensibly to protect things like freedom of religion and freedom of speech, God makes us no such promises in His word. When Galatians 5:1, II Corinthians 3:17, or I Peter 2:16 are talking about freedom, they are talking about spiritual freedom — freedom from sin and the eternal consequences thereof. These passages have nothing to do with our secular liberties.

Yes, it’s great to live in a country where we can express ourselves freely without unreasonable fear of government censorship. Yes, it’s nice that we can gather to worship without fear. It’s even nice that taxation gets coupled with representation. But these are not rights handed down by God, as I’ve heard some put it. They are rights and freedom’s in man’s eyes.

Certainly, First Century Christians didn’t spontaneously gain these rights upon baptism into Christ, nor does God promise them to us. The preamble to our Constitution and the Bill of Rights are not inspired documents. They may invoke God’s name, but that does not make them God’s will. We are blessed that God has allowed us to live and thrive in such a nation with such freedoms, but let’s not idolize our freedoms in the process.

Tearing Down High Places

The trouble we see in so many Old Testament kings is that, while they might have tried honoring God by enforcing the feasts or adding to the temple, they often left the high places installed. These high places served as a constant pull away from God and toward idols. We, in turn, have a choice about what we’re going to fill our minds and hearts with. We can allow these high places of nationality, freedoms, and politics to become idols in our hearts. Or we can abandon them.

Idols like these are difficult to talk about honestly, but we have to be able to separate these things out if we are going to reach the world with Christ’s message. Whether or not someone believes in climate change has no impact on their relationship with God, and it should have no impact on our spiritual relationship with them. Whether or not someone is an American has no impact on their relationship with God. Our earthly freedoms have no effect on our relationship with God. Unless we put them on par with God. Then they become idols.

“It’s Your Problem”

I see stuff like this all the time on Facebook:

If you don’t like what I post, then it’s your problem. Just delete me if you don’t like what I write because I’m just being myself, and you should go away if you can’t handle it.

Or I see and hear things like:

If I can’t be myself on Facebook, it’s ridiculous. I wish people at church would stop trying to change me. I am who I am, and if they can’t handle it, they shouldn’t be friends with me on Facebook. It’s their problem if they can’t take me for who I am.

To an extent, I can see where these attitudes are coming from. There are people I know, some even pretty close to me, who assume ulterior motives to nearly every lesson I give and every post I write. They have good foundation for their biases but have never come to the realization that I’ve grown and changed since they formed their opinions. They assume the worst of me, and there’s nothing I can do about it outside of trying to keep my conduct and attitudes as good as possible.

On the other hand, we need to remember what the scriptures say about the examples we set to our fellow Christians and to the world around us. Paul, in Romans 15, says we should bear others’ burdens, and he goes on in I Corinthians 8 to warn us against wounding the consciences of our fellow Christians. If I’m causing a brother or sister to stumble, instead of digging my heels in, I need to evaluate myself. We’re to be living peaceably with those around us, and an “it’s your problem” attitude is anything but peaceable.

It’s easy to have knee-jerk reactions. It’s easy to see faults in those who share their concerns with us. It’s easy to push back. As Christians, we should be striving for something better. In this case, it’s a little bit of self-evaluation, a little bit of self-adjustment. We have to ask ourselves what’s more important – preserving our relationships with our brothers and sisters in Christ or our pride.

Pride and Discouragement

I’m a good public speaker. I say that without reserve. I have few strengths, but I know that’s one of them. I’ve given talks on technology, on autism, on arts integration, and I’ve delivered more than a few sermons in my time. My style is fast-paced, witty, sometimes appropriately sarcastic, and I enjoy ending on an inspiring note. In a sermon, I’ll seldom keep you sitting for longer than twenty minutes (thank you, Mark Twain), and I slave over having some of the best sermon slides you’ll see in a church of Christ. I take pride in my speaking ability. As I said, it’s one of my few real strengths.

I sometimes find it disheartening, then, how seldom I get to speak. Right now, we do not have an employed pulpit preacher at our congregation, and a group of men are distributing the preaching among a few guys in the congregation. I look at some upcoming topics, and I immediately think of the research I’ve done on that subject or how my line of work positions me perfectly to address that issue, and then someone else gets picked to talk. Sometimes months go by between my being able to exercise my one strong talent.

And it rankles when I feel passed over. I have to check my attitude when I see individuals who are not very good public speakers get placed in the pulpit again and again while I merely sit and take notes for the congregational blog, at times desperately trying to reword parts of their lessons to better communicate the points they are making. Then the speaking list for the next couple of months appears, and I see myself not on it again. I feel I’ve been punched in the stomach.

What sours my attitude all the more is that, in my own head, I think I know who is discouraging my inclusion as a speaker, and I think I know why – which leads to battling feelings of bitterness and resentment. I have to stop and check my attitude during Bible class, during meetings, even during social events. I’ve also had to quell a certain amount of internal participation discouragement in general, a feeling that makes me want to withdraw from participating altogether, so maybe I’ll stop accidentally reinforcing those negative stereotypes I think others have of me. I think, “If they’re just going to assume this of me anyway, why bother?”

But the truth is, I have to remind myself it comes down to pride. Yes, I’m a pretty good speaker – certainly better than average. But that should not afford me special treatment. I John 2:16 reminds us that pride is of the world; it has nothing to do with spiritual service. Mark 7:22 says that pride defiles a man, and Proverbs 29:23 says pride will ultimately bring you low. That’s what pride is doing to me when I let these things discourage me, when I let pride tell me that I don’t want to lead worship, or lead Bible class, or participate in other ways because that pride has been hurt.

What ways do you find pride getting in the way of your own godly service? In what ways do you catch yourself putting self before Christ? There are many ways our pride can misguide us, but we just have to be reflective, knowing that God lifts up the humbled heart, that he exalts the prostrate spirit. I think I know where I have to overcome pride in my own life. Where do you face similar challenges?

Abstaining from Ridicule

Yesterday, one of my younger cousins posted this to Facebook:

Let’s try to be humble, rational people; truth needs no help from mockery and laughter in its defense (even if we are surrounded by those who agree with us that an opposing viewpoint is false)…Mockery says, ‘I am better’…and what better way is there to cloud judgment than to be prideful?

I remember that a congregation I once attended offered a World Religions class during Bible Study time. The teacher, I think, did a fine job trying to teach us about other belief systems as respectfully as he could while comparing and contrasting those systems to the Bible. Many of the class members, however, were far from respectful. Every class, people would make jokes about aspects of another faith they thought was silly, and all I could think was, “I hope we have no visitors who believe that.”

We do the same when it comes to Intelligent Design versus the Big Bang and evolution and a million other differences between you, me, and others. The fact is, we ridicule other peoples’ seemingly outlandish beliefs so we feel better about our own leaps of faith. We are building ourselves up by tearing others down. We might call it “all in good fun,” or “just a joke.” In my line of work, we call it bullying, and I don’t appreciate it in my classroom. I appreciate it even less when other Christians are engaged in it, or, even worse, I find myself roped into it.

Think of the Samaritan by the well in John 4. When she started asking about details of worship, Jesus doesn’t ridicule her for following different traditions than His culture. Instead, He points her mind away from physical matters and toward spiritual matters. In Acts 17, when Paul visits Athens, he doesn’t make fun of them for all of the gods they worship. Instead, he finds common ground in their religious practices to begin teaching them about the Christ. Even when Jesus is harsh with the Pharisees in Matthew 23, he doesn’t stoop to mocking them while pointing out their hypocrisies.

It’s easy to mock. It’s easy to make someone else’s beliefs sound ridiculous. For example, I once saw Christianity explained thusly:

The belief that a cosmic Jewish Zombie can make you live forever if you symbolically eat his flesh and telepathically tell him that you accept him as your master, so he can remove an evil source from your soul that is present because a talking snake convinced a rib-woman to eat from a magical tree.

How do you feel about that description? Does it amuse you? Does it make you angry? Do you want to sit down with the author and explain your views in a less ridiculous way? Does it make you care about their perspective or resistant to it? Now how do you think ridiculing the beliefs and convictions of others does any good for the cause of Christ? It doesn’t. It just makes us look bad.

Let’s remember that we are to watch our tongues (James 3) and that we should be striving to – that is putting a great deal of effort into – living peaceably with those around us (Romans 12:18). Let us put away ridicule and mockery and seek more open and honest dialogue with those around us.

Good King Hezekiah

In II Kings 18, we read of a king in Judah called Hezekiah. The scriptures tell us there was no one like him before or after him of those kings of Judah. In the first month of his reign, Hezekiah begins to restore Jehovah worship. He tears down idols and idolatrous places of worship. He stands up to overwhelming forces due to his steadfast faith in the Lord. What is it, though, that really made him such a great man? Why is it that the Bible tells us no king before or after him was greater?

Factors Working Against Him

It was not his father who made him great. His father Ahaz, recorded in II Kings 16, was very wicked. In II Kings 16, Ahaz engages in child sacrifice. He shuts up the temple of the Lord. He participates in excessive idolatry, and he leads the nation of Judah into those same practices. Hezekiah is not the product of his father. Still, remember II Timothy 1:5, Proverbs 3:1, and Ephesians 6:4. God does want us to set the proper examples for our children. He does care about the responsibilities of parenthood, but Ezekiel 18:20 reminds us that children can do well despite our parents. Hezekiah was great despite his upbringing.

Unfortunately, neither was Hezekiah great because of his family legacy. In II Kings 21, we read of Hezekiah’s son Manasseh, who rebuilds the idols, even placing alters to false gods in God’s temple. Manasseh restores child sacrifice to the land of Judah. Now Manasseh does repent in his old age, but his actions lead to deep personal loss on his own part. Hezekiah may have been a great king, but the legacy he left was far from great.

In II Kings 20, we see that pride does not make Hezekiah great while he shows off his great possessions to the Babylonian emissaries – people from that same nation that would eventually enslave Judah. Proverbs 16:18 reminds us that pride precedes a fall, and Hezekiah’s pride did not please his God.

Hezekiah’s Great Stature

Despite these things, we cannot discount II Kings 18:5.

…There was none like him among all the kings of Judah after him, nor among those who were before him.

Why? Because he sought God’s word first. II Chronicles 31:20-21 tells it all.

Thus Hezekiah did throughout all Judah, and he did what was good and right and faithful before the LORD his God. And every work that he undertook in the service of the house of God and in accordance with the law and the commandments, seeking his God, he did with all his heart, and prospered.

He may not have been the leader the people wanted, but he was the leader they needed. He spoke out against, and removed, evil. II Kings 18:4 records him purging idolatry from the nation, even idolatry introduced by his own father. In II Chronicles 31, we can read the details of his restoration of true Jehovah worship in Judah – to the point of inviting their rival brethren from the northern kingdom of Israel to that worship.

Hezekiah sought to know and do God’s word. He sought to restore true worship in the land and purge all forms of evil from among his people. Finally, II Kings 18:5 tells us that Hezekiah trusted in the Lord. In II Kings 19:14, when Hezekiah receives an ultimatum from an unstoppable enemy, we see the king abandon self, go to the temple, spread the letter out on the floor of the temple, and prayed.

Conclusion

That the same could be said of us! Could God claim about you or me, “There was none like him/her,” in our efforts to follow God’s word, in keeping evil from our lives, and in trusting Him in all things. Nothing can keep us from that standard – our upbringing, our culture, our flaws. We can be like Hezekiah, setting our hearts to serve the Lord. We may never be great in the world’s eyes, but we can be good and faithful servants to our Lord, great in His eyes.

lesson by Tim Smelser

All About Jezebel

Jezebel – it’s a name laced with dark and heavy undertones. We don’t name our daughters Jezebel, and, if we do use the name in a sentence, it’s usually used as a derogatory term. I have to admit, though, Jezebel is one of those Bible characters who has always confused me. First of all, she seems disproportionately well-known for the amount of screen time she gets in the Bible. She gets about twenty verses in the entire Bible, not all together, and roughly half of those twenty (ish) verses cover her death. She’s a bit part, yet I bet you could tell me more about Jezebel than, say, King Asa, who gets a few chapters to himself. The other thing is this: her behavior just doesn’t seem to make sense.

A Quick Overview of Jezebel

Let’s take a look at the events of her life (not including her death).

  • I Kings 16:31 – King Ahab of Israel finds a nice girl named Jezebel and marries her. She influences his idolatry. So far so good.
  • I Kings 18:4 – Jezebel is slaughtering prophets. Okay, lady, I get that you like Baal, but why the murder of God’s prophets? Seems a tad extreme.
  • I Kings 19:1-2 – Jezebel learns that Elijah called fire from heaven, defeated the prophets of Baal, had all of the false prophets killed, and restored rain to the kingdom. The logical response? Decree Elijah’s death. I’d think most would back down at this point, but okay.
  • I King’s 21:5-16 – Jezebel learns a guy named Naboth refused to sell his vineyard to Ahab. She launches an overly convoluted plot (the likes of which would make Yzma proud) to ensure Naboth’s death, and she delivers the vineyard to Ahab. Really, read those verses; this plot is complicated.

The more we see of her, the stranger Jezebel seems. Take the final story as an example. She learns of Ahab’s disappointment, and it makes sense that she’d want to get rid of Naboth to get the vineyard. She’s queen, though. She could have sent mercenaries to take care of him. She could have found an excuse to force him from the land. Instead, she writes letters using Ahab’s seal and invites some elders and nobles to honor Naboth at a ceremonial fast. Then, they are to seat some false witnesses by Naboth who will claim the man somehow blasphemed God and the king. (Think about the irony of that for a moment.) The result: Naboth is stoned, and Ahab gets the vineyard.

Jezebel’s Primary Motivator

I stated earlier I have a hard time understanding Jezebel, but her motivations are actually pretty clear in light of the events surrounding Naboth’s vineyard. Jezebel, like so many of us, is solely concerned with what’s best for herself and only herself. Think about it. Of course she wants God’s prophets eliminated; they make her look bad. Of course she wants Elijah murdered after the events of Mount Carmel; his success was a personal affront to her. And Naboth? Jezebel doesn’t want her husband to look weak, for that reflects poorly on her. On the other hand, she doesn’t want to get her own hands dirty, so she launches a complicated plot where, should anything go wrong, any and all blame would fall on Ahab, allowing her to escape consequences unscathed.

She doesn’t do what she does out of love for Ahab, for her country (another motivator often leading to sinful attitudes and activities), or for her gods. Her actions are governed entirely by a love of self and a desire to put self before anything else. Seen in that light, Jezebel’s actions click into a logical pattern.

Sacrificing Self for Christ

We’re most likely familiar with Matthew 16:24-27:

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul? For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done.”

During the time of Christ, this image of bearing one’s cross would not have elicited thoughts of illness or frustrations. No one would have equated a cross with a difficult child, parent, boss, or teacher. They would not have even seen the cross as a lifetime ailment or disability. To bear a cross was to be walking toward one’s own death. This is not a passage about enduring hardships. It is about self-sacrifice. It is about crucifying self to put God first in our lives.

We live in a world of personal cars, home theater systems, self-serve gas stations, personal shoppers, personal assistants, individual rights, and personal freedoms. We grow offended when we are asked to sacrifice anything, whether that sacrifice be sharing food, helping pay for someone else’s needs, or simply being told we can’t have our way. At times, we are as self-centered as Jezebel, but a Christian should never behave so.

If we are walking in a Christ-like attitude, we put self last. We put others’ needs and interests before our own. We look after their physical needs as well as their spiritual needs. We put our self-defined rights in the background and prefer others. We submit our will to God’s, and we humble ourselves in His presence. Think on Christ, on Paul, on Peter, on Stephen – to what extent did these heroes of faith devalue self to glorify God? In God’s eyes who would you rather be, a Stephen or a Jezebel? It all depends on where you place self.