Hope

Hope is a word we use all the time, yet its meaning is a bit elusive as is hope itself. I was recently thinking back of things I have hoped for over the years. There were the simple hopes, like Christmas coming sooner. The first Christmas hope I remember that came to fruition was a Tonka Firetruck (which I still have). As I reached adolescence, my hopes moved beyond firetrucks. I had hoped to be nominated to the Air Force Academy (which did happen) and to be selected (which didn’t happen).

Moving into my 20s, I hoped (beyond hopes) that I might be privileged with a beautiful wife (which certainly happened). As we raised a family, my hopes turned more external, more God-influenced. I hoped that our kids would grow into adulthood as Christ-followers (which has happened). With prayer at the center, that hope was accompanied by doing the hard work necessary to not screw it up. The wishful thinking of our younger years doesn’t serve us well in adulthood nor as Christ-followers, leaving us to wonder, “What is hope, anyway?”

The dictionary definition of hope suggests wishful thinking, a desire for something good to happen. While Biblical hope certainly includes a desire for something good to happen, it is much more than that. We discover that a variety of Hebrew words are often translated into the single English word “hope.” An aggregation of the various Hebrew words provides us with a description of hope that includes, “to trust in, wait for, look for, or desire something or someone; or to expect something beneficial in the future.”

Notice that Biblical hope implies trust. And the focus of that trust is Yahweh, the Lord God – on who his is and what he has done. We western Christians struggle to trust and hope in God simply for who he is. We tend to focus of our hope and trust on what he can do for us (here we think of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism). In Scripture, on the other hand, we see hope and trust focused on God himself…

  • Psalm 25:2-3 (NIV) – I trust in you; do not let me be put to shame, nor let my enemies triumph over me.  No one who hopes in you will ever be put to shame… The Hebrew word here implies not only hope and trust but also security.
  • Psalm 33:22 (a mix of ESV & AMP) – Let your steadfast love [hesed], O Lord, be upon us, even as we hope [placed our confidence] in you. Notice that trust (confidence) is placed on God and his character, his covenant love for his people.
  • Jeremiah 14:22 (AMP) – Are there any among the idols of the nations who can send rain?  Or can the heavens [of their own will] give showers?  Is it not You, O Lord our God?  Therefore we will wait and hope [confidently] in You, for You are the one who has made all these things [the heavens and the rain]. Again, the bracketed confidence implies trust.

Biblical hope also holds an element of waiting, which we see in the Amplified translation of Jeremiah 14:22, above. One of our go-to passages that speaks of waiting is Isaiah 40:31they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint. The word ‘wait’ could easily be translated as hope. Read the passage with hope inserted: they who hope in the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint. It comes to life!

The origin of the Hebrew term in the Isaiah passage suggests a twisting, stretching, and tension during the time of waiting and hoping. Ah, we do not want to hear that! We want hope to be positive, not twisting, stretching, or causing tension. We want a quick sprint that leads to soaring like eagles. We aren’t interested in a marathon. It doesn’t fit our western Christian thinking or culture.

But life has changed, hasn’t it? We are actually living out Isaiah 40:31. We may be in a marathon without an established finish line. We are experiencing twisting, stretching, and tension from all sides. And we wait in hope. Our ability to navigate these days is fully dependent on that which we place our hope as we wait. Are we hoping and waiting for this to get over, for improved circumstances? Or do we settle in for a marathon, placing our hope, trust, and confidence in the one true God as we wait?

Likely we waffle between the two and thus a cause of much tension. God is well aware of our waffling and wants to hold us, not scold us! I recall Jesus not scolding the father of a son desperately in need of healing: “The father of the boy cried out [with a desperate, piercing cry], saying, ‘I do believe [trust]; help [me overcome] my unbelief [lack of trust].'” (Mark 9:24) God, we believe! Help us in our unbelief!

We continue to shout our praise even when we’re hemmed in with troubles, because we know how troubles can develop passionate patience in us, and how that patience in turn forges the tempered steel of virtue, keeping us alert for whatever God will do next. In alert expectancy such as this, we’re never left feeling shortchanged. Quite the contrary—we can’t round up enough containers to hold everything God generously pours into our lives through the Holy Spirit! (Romans 5:3-5, The Message)

Dishwasher Broke!

Our dishwasher broke a couple weeks ago and just got fixed this week, thanks to CenterPoint Energy’s Home Service Plus program. It wasn’t a huge inconvenience, except that it required us to wash our dishes by hand for a while. The nice part about washing by hand is the built-in opportunity to ponder (as I am wont to do when involved in menial tasks).

One day I was washing glasses that our grandsons had used after eating something sugary. The outsides were sticky, clear evidence of the sugar. As I started to wash the glasses, I realized something interesting was taking place. In the process of washing the inside, the outside naturally became clean. I wasn’t focused on washing the outside. I was focused on washing the inside. The cleansing of the outside was a natural outcome. I began to wonder if Jesus’ dishwasher might have broken once because he talked about the same thing. Sort of…

When Jesus had finished speaking, a Pharisee invited him to eat with him; so he went in and reclined at the table. But the Pharisee was surprised when he noticed that Jesus did not first wash before the meal. Then the Lord said to him, “Now then, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You foolish people! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also?” (Luke 11:37-40)

In his Gospel, Matthew records a similar discourse between Jesus and some Pharisees in which Jesus concluded, “Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean” (Matthew 23:26). The context of Matthew’s narrative? Prior to 23:26, the editors of the NIV translation added the heading, Seven Woes on the Teachers of the Law and the Pharisees. Seven times Jesus said “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!” Ouch! Jesus wasn’t mincing his words with the religious leaders. Seven times he called them out for their hypocrisy, for missing the mark. And they knew it. It would have been difficult for the hearers to respond, “I wonder what he meant?” They knew exactly what he meant. And they didn’t like it. It was around this time that they stepped up plots to kill Jesus.

What was the sin of the religious leaders? I would suggest moralism. The religious leaders had reduced God’s steadfast love, mercy, and faithfulness (hesed and emet) to a recipe for moral improvement. In the 21st century, we can also succumb to the (some would say seductive) false gospel of moralism. Moralism in our context is the reduction of the Gospel – the outrageous, extravagant, radical, unconditional, love of Jesus – to moral improvement.

How might we know if we have culturally or personally succumbed to the false gospel of moralism? What might be some indicators? We might have been seduced by “christian” moralism:

  • If we find ourselves using the word “should” to describe the state of our faith journey (i.e., I should pray more or I should read the bible more, etc.). Brennan Manning always used to say, “Thou shalt not should on thyself.”
  • If we find ourselves reading scripture and seeing our own character flaws and missing the character of God.
  • When we read stories about bible heroes, wondering if we could ever have that kind of faith and miss that the stories are actually telling us about who God is.
  • When we miss the fact that the Gospel accounts were written to tell us who Jesus is and not just what he can do for us.
  • When we think living the Christian life looks like “Do good; try not to do bad.”
  • When we read a scripture passage and think of others who ought to be reading this. Ouch!
  • When we tell people (especially younger people) how Christians should act. (We want to keep in mind that the Greek word for hypocrite is actor. Jesus was calling out the religious leaders for being actors)

Read the tenets of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism and you can see the results of 50 or so years of the presence of the false gospel of moralism. Listen to sermons. Are they about who Jesus is – his character? – or do they lean toward moral improvement and how we should act? The Gospel of Jesus and the “gospel” of moralism are diametrically opposed to each other. Don’t be fooled into believing the false gospel of moralism. It’s more prevalent than one might suspect. Be aware. Be wise as serpents. I don’t know about you, but I would never want to hear Jesus say to me, “Woe unto you!”

Which Jesus do we “Follow?”

Over the past 15-20 years, many people have preferred to refer to themselves as Christ-followers rather than Christians, of which I am one. However, what following looks like has everything to do with who we understand Jesus to be and what he is up to in the 21st century.

In the last post, I suggested that there is a significant difference between “believing” and “following.” I would further suggest that we consider the difference to be related to who we understand Jesus to be, rather than a mere definition differentiation of the two terms. It is important that we distinguish between cognitive belief, typical of 21st century western thought, and pisteuō, the Greek New Testament word often translated as “believe.” It might have more to do with who we want Jesus to be in our day-to-day lives.

What if I view Jesus in a transactional manner – meaning, he came, died and rose for the forgiveness of my sins with my acceptance of his action as a completion of the transaction? How might that affect who Jesus is to me? How might that affect daily life? I would propose that a transactional understanding of faith leads to a ‘static’ Jesus – he came to earth, did his job, and returned to heaven awaiting our arrival (unless he comes back to get us first). It’s the Jesus of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism! Consider what a static Jesus looks like…

In truth, the “Jesus card” (above) that we gave the confirmation kids depicts a static Jesus – he’s not moving. Since he’s not moving, I can move toward and away from with ease and regularity. If I need him, I know where to find him – he’s right where I left him (i.e., I can leave him at Church and come back to see him the following week(s)). A static Jesus is safe and predictable and will not mess with my world. This is the Jesus of western cultural Christianity, the one we manipulate* so we can live a nice, civilized life. His job is to make us happy. With this Jesus, it’s mostly about me and sometimes about him. This Jesus won’t ask much of me. This Jesus will randomly ask us to serve others to appease him and to feel better about ourselves. I can’t follow a static Jesus (he’s not moving!). I can only “believe” in him. This all begs the question: “How can I have a dynamic relationship with a static Jesus?”

In reality, Jesus is on the move, advancing the kingdom work he inaugurated 2000+ years ago. As confirmation classes progressed, we helped the kids understand this. What changes for me if I see Jesus as present and on the move? Everything!

The Jesus depicted above is not static. He invaded our world 2000 years ago and turned things upside down.  This Jesus is on the move and has invited me to join him in his movement – the advancement of his kingdom.  If I choose to walk away from this Jesus for a while, he moves on without me because it’s not about me – it’s all about Him.  This Jesus asks for a lot – all of me.  This Jesus says that our primary purpose on earth is to serve others.  This is the Jesus of Christ-followers.  This Jesus is worth following and makes my following worthwhile.  This is the Jesus of scripture.  THIS IS THE REAL JESUS. Oh, and I can have a dynamic relationship with this Jesus!

I would suggest that if we find ourselves with a static Jesus, we don’t really know him. We have built a faith primarily on knowing about him. Consider that the Pharisees primarily had a static view of God. We certainly don’t want to align our theology with the Pharisees, but many of us have. How we follow is affected by how we view Jesus. Which Jesus do you “follow?”


For Your Consideration:

“It was the good (and extremely dangerous) news that the living God was on the move. Jesus came to Galilee as a wandering prophet, not a stationary one. Jesus’s contemporaries trusted all sorts of things: their ancestry, their land, their Temple, their laws.  Even their God – provided this God did exactly as they expected him to” (my emphasis). (From NT Wright in Mark for Everyone – comments regarding Mark 1:14-20.)


* The most accurate definition of idolatry is “conscious manipulation of God.”

The Visible Expression of the Invisible God…

Circa 1973. God had drawn me into youth ministry through Young Life, a non-denominational outreach to teenagers. I was serving teenagers in my hometown, working full-time, and pursuing an engineering degree taking classes a couple nights a week. In the midst of it all, I tried to read scripture with some consistency and with some success. In the 70s, we didn’t have the availability of scripture translations and paraphrases as we do today, but we had a few – King James, Revised Standard, New American Standard, The Living Bible, The Good News Bible, and a favorite of Young Life staff, the J.B. Phillips New Testament.

Early into my Young Life experience, at a volunteer leader training, we were pointed to Colossians 1:15Now Christ is the visible expression of the invisible God (Phillips). The passage, it was explained, was a cornerstone to Young Life talks – we wanted kids to know the real God and the real God made himself visible through Jesus. Jesus revealed God’s character, compassion, and heart for people. In preparing Young Life talks, I diligently worked at helping kids see this Jesus, the visible expression of the God they could not see. A few months into the beginning of my Young Life tenure as a volunteer leader, a thought occurred to me: I didn’t know God or Jesus, save a few stories I learned in Sunday School*…..

In the midst of a fairly busy schedule, I embarked on a year-long quest to know God. It didn’t start as a year-long quest. It started as a one-time reading of the the Gospels in my brand new J.B. Phillips New Testament, underlining and highlighting with a red colored pencil as I progressed. After an initial read, I decided to read them again – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – marking the pages with a different color. I was amazed to discover how much I didn’t observe in the first go-around. So I read them again. I soon realized that my eyes were drawn to passages that were already highlighted. So I bought a new bible of a different translation and repeated the process, highlighting new discoveries about Jesus (and thus about God).

Seven translations and a year later I felt I was ready to adequately venture into other parts of the New Testament as well as the Old Testament. As I look back 45 years, I have to believe that year was one of the most transformative experiences of my faith journey. It’s what likely saved me from the tenets of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. It set me up to know Jesus (not just about Jesus). It set me up to give decent Young Life talks. It set me up to be a better husband and father. It set me up to learn to read Scripture exegetically. IT SET ME UP FOR LIFE!

I am amazed how few people have actually read straight through the Gospels even one time, which is why I give everyone I mentor the exact same assignment – read through the Gospels. When done, I usually have them repeat the process. Invariably, I get the same response – it was a transformative experience (a common ‘practical theology’ theme, you’ll notice). If you happen to be one that has never done a read-through of the Gospels, then you know what I would suggest. I sincerely hope you would heed the suggestion. My heart aches when I realize how few Christians spend time in the Gospels, and thus with Jesus. How else will we ever know Him?

* I had the privilege of joining a group of people to hear George Barna give a researcher’s perspective of what is needed to develop our young people in today’s culture. He said research shows that most church children and youth teachings tend to focused only on about 20 basic Bible stories. (In one of these posts we will need to discuss “kindergarten faith.”)

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism

About 15 years ago, Christian Smith released the findings of qualitative research he conducted, interviewing approximately 3000 high school students (Smith & Denton, 2005).  His summary interpretation of kids’ statements about religious faith and practice: “we suggest that the de facto dominant religion among contemporary U.S. teenagers is what we might well call ‘Moralistic Therapeutic Deism’” (p. 162).  The tenets or creed of this “religion:”

  1. A God exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
  2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when He is needed to resolve a problem.
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

Though this ‘creed’ is particularly apparent among kids with Catholic and mainline Protestant backgrounds, it is also quite evident among Protestants that are more ‘conservative’ in theology and practice.  In their summation, Smith and Denton provide three points worthy of consideration:

  1. Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD) is about the indoctrination of a moralistic approach to life.  Many sermons are moralistic in nature.  “Do good, try not to do bad” is the mantra of a moralistic version of Christianity. 
  2. Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is “about providing therapeutic benefits to its adherents” (p. 163).  Simply stated, God’s main job is to make us happy.  MTD is not about repentance, gratitude, dying to self, building character through difficult circumstances, giving of one’s self to social justice, etc.
  3. Moralistic Therapeutic Deism follows the basic tenets of deism – God created the universe and humanity, defines the general moral order, but is not particularly personally involved in the affairs of humans, especially where we prefer he not be involved. We call on him only when necessary and blame him when we are not happy or when things don’t go our way. Deists view God as “watching over us from above.”

Though Smith’s research is almost 15 years old, it is fair to conclude not a lot has changed in the course of the past decade or so.  Therefore, it is imperative that we be aware of the tenets of MTD as we communicate what following Jesus looks in our culture(s).  We want to help people know Jesus; MTD focuses on what we can get him to do for us.

Reference: Smith, C., & Denton, M. L. (2005). Soul searching : The religious and spiritual lives of american teenagers. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.