Christianity 201

October 5, 2021

Fearing and Trembling

Over the past year, in the wake of differing opinions on everything from health issues to politics, I have seen a great proliferation of new books being published on how Christians should work out their differences with other believers.

It’s hard to do this, because the answers are not always black-and-white; not always crystal-clear. Two people can have different answers to the WWJD? question. (We’ll get to that in a minute!)

1 Corinthians 13:12 (NLT) states,

Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely.

Philippians 2:12 advises us to “work out” our salvation “with fear and trembling.” As other translations make clearer, this references what was translated elsewhere as “fear of God.”

Dear friends, you always followed my instructions when I was with you. And now that I am away, it is even more important. Work hard to show the results of your salvation, obeying God with deep reverence and fear. (NLT)

…Be energetic in your life of salvation, reverent and sensitive before God. (MSG)

But sometimes, you find yourself fearing and trembling your fellow believer, especially when the “working out” means that you walk away from certain scripture verses with a different take on them than that of a brother or sister. I know fear of your fellow man wasn’t what the verse intended; but sometimes life seems to be play out like that.

In the early days of my other blog, I would spend over an hour some days catching up with moderating and reading and responding to reader comments. With a few of them, I would reach a point where we clearly agreed to disagree. But hopefully neither of us were being disagreeable.

It’s hard not to be passionate about our pet doctrines. I can easily fall into that trap. But it becomes even more difficult when people have grown up without exposure to anyone who feels different about a particular element of theology than their own.

And then there are the people who shut everything down with, “Well, that’s not in the Bible;” expecting that the scripture would provide crystal-clear guidance on things that weren’t invented or didn’t exist back then.

Guess what? You’re right. It’s not in the Bible. But other things are, and we can interpolate where the dots connect by reading what the Bible does say about very similar things.

Especially one thing: The mind and heart of God.

The popular bracelets, buttons and bumper stickers from two years ago asked the question, What would Jesus do? Sometimes we have to (with fear and trembling) figure that out by asking the question, What did Jesus do? Knowing how he did respond (and teach us to respond) gives us an idea how he would respond to what we face today.

We’re so quick to say that “Christianity isn’t a religion, it’s a relationship;” but many people fail to express their faith in relational terms. To which I would say maybe you are missing out on something. To know what God feels about things in our modern context, you need to first know God as a friend. I have friends who I haven’t seen physically in a long, long time; others who I haven’t so much as e-mailed; but I know how they would respond and react in certain situations because I know them.

At this point however, it can still be a standoff, because the other person may feel they have as deep a knowledge of God and His will as you do. We know that while we may all stand in personal relationship to God; or if you prefer, to Jesus; the dynamic of that relationship may be quite different for different people.

So work out your doctrine with fear and trembling.

Work out your personal ethics with fear and trembling.

Work out your systematic theology with fear and trembling.

Work out how you respond to others with fear and trembling.

But remember, that all around you are other Christ followers — seeing as through frosted (or fogged up) glass — who are doing the exact same thing. With the cross of Christ in view, we will eventually find ourselves drawing closer to each other. But it may take time.

Our closing words are from the next chapter of Philippians. Here’s what Paul says in 3:12-14 (NLT)

I don’t mean to say that I have already achieved these things or that I have already reached perfection. But I press on to possess that perfection for which Christ Jesus first possessed me. No, dear brothers and sisters, I have not achieved it, but I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us.


So should we just clam up and say nothing ever? Tomorrow we’ll look at the idea of “preaching to the trees;” affirming our faith in declarations even when it seems nobody is listening.

October 3, 2019

Conviction or Humility? Which Do We Need When We Share the Good News?

(This post is part of a series on Daniel which begins here.)

by Clarke Dixon

We Christians we have incredibly good, and incredibly important, news to share. When we share the good news of God’s love, should we be full of conviction, or humility? Which do we need in order to help people discover the good news in our day?

We can learn from Daniel who had a very important message to share with the Babylonian king. While God’s people were in exile, King Nebuchadnezzar had a bad dream and expected his wise men not only to interpret the dream, but to tell him what the dream was as well! If not, all the wise men, including Daniel, would be put to death. His usual wise men could come up with nothing. What did Daniel do?

14 When Arioch, the commander of the king’s guard, came to kill them, Daniel handled the situation with wisdom and discretion. 15 He asked Arioch, “Why has the king issued such a harsh decree?” So Arioch told him all that had happened. 16 Daniel went at once to see the king and requested more time to tell the king what the dream meant. Daniel 2:14-16 (NLT)

Daniel’s response demonstrated great conviction. Daniel was convinced that God would rescue. Daniel had so much conviction, in fact, that he arranged a future interview with the king before hearing from God! Do we, who are Christians, have the conviction that God rescues? Is our faith held as a matter of deep personal conviction, or are we simply Christians because our parents or grandparents were? Are we convinced that Jesus is who he said he is, or are we Christians because we think Christianity might be good for us? Have we looked at the evidence for Christianity, or are we Christians ‘just in case’ it might be true? We have good reasons to have conviction about Jesus and the Bible. If you have not considered the evidence, you can begin with my “Shrunk Sermon” series called “Compelling” which begins here. We can have deep conviction that God is, and that God will rescue. It is an old cliché, but can we dare to be a Daniel and share the message with conviction?

So it is conviction we need and not humility? Let us look again to Daniel as he delivers the message to the king:

. . . it is not because I am wiser than anyone else that I know the secret of your dream, but because God wants you to understand what was in your heart. Daniel 2:30 (NLT)

Imagine the temptation for Daniel, in learning the contents of the the king’s dream from God, to stand before the king with great pride. Imagine the temptation to gloat, to point out that he is the only one that could pull this miracle off. However, Daniel has great humility: “it is not because I am wiser than anyone else.”

In a previous sermon, we looked at missing ingredients that make Christianity taste awful in our society. Humility is sometimes one of those ingredients. We, who are Christians, can come across as “know-it-alls.” Perhaps it is because of what we think the Bible is. I have heard it said that the Bible answers any and every question you could possibly ever have about anything. Having read through the Bible myself many times, I have not found that to be the case. In fact, sometimes it raises more questions that it answers! The Bible itself does not claim to have all the answers:

 14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, 15 and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. 2 Timothy 3:14-17 (NIV)

The Bible tells us what we need to know to have a relationship with God, and what life looks like when we lean into that relationship. But it does not tell us everything about everything. And that is okay. We don’t need to know everything about everything. That is also okay.

Let me give one example where we Christians can sound like we have all the answers and know everything. When I first began pastoring in the 1990’s I came across something aimed at gay people called “conversion therapy.” One organization in particular, called Exodus, was well known for this. At the time it sounded like a good thing to me. It seemed to fit nicely with Christian theology. Conversion therapy has been something that many  Christians have promoted with great certainty.

Fast forward to today, and there is a movement to ban conversion therapy. To many this might feel like persecution against Christians. But is it? The basic premise of conversion therapy is that you are gay because you have a terrible relationship with your father. Fix that, and you can be fixed. However, the evidence is in; many straight people have terrible relationships with their fathers and many gay people have great relationships with their fathers. Are we able to say with Daniel “we are not wiser than anyone else” and be willing to follow the evidence?

We may not want to follow the evidence because conversion therapy seems to fit so nicely with traditional Christian theology. But does it? The evidence is in, and conversion therapy has not worked. Now imagine it’s you, and you have been shipped off to a center with great expectation and prayerfulness. You come home, unchanged. You already feel like you have disappointed your Christian community by being gay in the first place. Now you are adding further disappointment by not being straightened out. You may give up on prayer, God, yourself. Many have.

Jesus told the story of a man beaten and left for dead. The religious elites passed by on the other side, but the Good Samaritan stopped to help. If conversion therapy is more harmful than helpful, then perhaps we should be the good Samaritans and be the first to call for a ban, not the last. The Exodus organization did indeed shut down and apologized for harm done in 2013. In shutting down and apologizing, the leaders of Exodus humbly followed the evidence rather than claiming to be wiser than everyone else.

Let us not act like we know all the answers, but let us with humility follow the evidence where it leads, on conversion therapy, and much else. Let us echo the humble posture of Daniel, let us communicate “I am not better than you, I don’t have more wisdom than any other human being.” Let us be willing to learn. Can we dare to be a Daniel and have a posture of humility?

Daniel had a good mix of conviction and humility. So did the apostle Paul:

12 Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely. 1 Corinthians 13:12 (NLT)

Daniel knew that he was not smarter than everyone, but connected to Someone. This gave Daniel great conviction expressed in a posture of great humility. So which do we need in order to communicate the good news of Jesus in our day? If we are strong on conviction, we may want to reach for greater humility. If we are strong on humility, we may want to reach for greater conviction. We can, and should, declare the good news of Jesus with great conviction. We should do so with deep humility.

August 2, 2012

Seeing a Different Set of Possibilities

You’ll notice there isn’t the usual green scripture text here today, but there is most definitely a scripture reference. This is from the blog Fibonacci Faith, written by Richard Dahlstrom, where it appeared under the title, Imagine: The Importance of Envisioning a Different World.

The authors of “Colossians Remixed” write:  If with Christ you died in your baptism to the principles of autonomous consumerism that still hold the world captive, then why do you live in a way that suggests that you are still in the iron grip of its ideological vision?  Why do you submit yourself to its regulations to consume as if there were no tomorrow, to live as if community were an impediment to personal fulfillment, to live as if everything were disposable, including relationships, the unborn, and the environment? Why do you allow this deceitful vision to still have a hold on you?  Don’t you know that copulating with the idols of this culture is like climbing into bed with a corpse that is already decomposing?”

This paraphrase of Colossians 2:20-23 is intended to shake us a awake because God knows that we fall into the slumber of the curse far too easily, which is the sleep of accepting the world in which we live as ‘normal’.  When this happens we lose our capacity to imagine a better world, which leaves us stuck in status-quo lives.  The greatest tragedy though, is that we don’t know we’re stuck, having accepted the captivity to cultural mores as “normal”.  In such a paradigm, faith is stripped of its transformative power, having been reduced to simply a matter of adding a dash of Bible reading, chastity, piety, and a few key doctrines about Christ’s deity to our “normal” lives, the way we add seasoning to an omelet; nothing changes other than the hope that things taste a little better with Jesus.

John Lennon did a better job of imagining a different world than the church has done.  What steps can we take to recapture our imagination?

1. Get out – By “out” I mean, out of the prevailing winds and waters of the culture.  Jesus withdrew to a quiet place to pray, often to the mountains.  This is perhaps more significant than we realize, not only the praying, but the withdrawing.  This is because our spirits and psyches quickly adapt to our image saturated culture, resulting in our passive acceptance of things that should horrify us.  A simple walk in the park, listening to the birds, watching the ocean, and paying attention to the rhythms of life sustained by the Creator, becomes a sort of ‘reboot’ for the soul if we practice actually paying attention and giving thanks.  These regular forays into the realm of silence and solitude create a soul attuned to how the world ought to be, so that we come to see ourselves as sojourners, foreigners, in our daily living.  We’ll recoil at the disposability of everything: relationships, plastic water bottles, the elderly and ill, employees who are reduced to ‘units of production’.  We’ll grieve over the obsession with body image that’s literally killing young girls, even as we grieve over the damage to health that comes from people sitting, eating fake food, watching TV, and calling it a life – withdrawn from sustaining sunshine, health giving food, and the vibrancy that comes from movement of body, mind, and spirit.

Perhaps the greatest impediment to imagining a world of hope and beauty is our passive acceptance of things just as they are.  They way out of that prison will always include changing the air we breathe – breaking out of the prisons of consumerism, nationalism, violence, and individualism, so that we’ll be free to inhale the life giving air of Christ’s peace, beauty, simplicity, and hope.  But this won’t happen by using our precious discretionary moments only to sit  in front of the TV, or the computer screen.  We need an alternative reality, because as it turns out, we are in fact transformed by the renewing of our minds, not by the inspiration of reality TV.

2. Become obsessed with Christ’s reign.  Jesus says something about the impossibility of serving two masters in the context of his exhortation to live more carefree, like the birds, and less like the anxious striving that usually seems to be the lot of those seeking to make their mark in this world, or at least get their fair share of economic pie.  What’s most interesting to me about this section of Jesus’ famous sermon is that Jesus says we can’t serve two masters.  It’s noteworthy that he doesn’t warn us about the danger of trying to serve the kingdom of God and the kingdom of upward mobility.  He says that you CANNOT serve both; it’s an impossibility.  Whichever one you serve, you’ll hate the other.

Wow.  That’s challenging!  If I try to have my “kingdom of this world” cake, and seek to make Christ’s reign visible, I’ll fail – every single time.  I need, then, to become obsessed with only one of these two options, and Jesus makes it clear that the best option is to choose His reign as our obsession.  This will mean that everything – my time, money, property, body, vocation, travel plans, vacation, sexuality, recreational pursuits, exercise program – can all fall under this single consideration:  “what will best make Christ’s reign visible?”  Far from being constrictive, I find this single focused approach to life to be liberating as everything is brought under the single consideration of making Christ’s reign visible.

Of course, if we’re going to go this route, we need to become obsessed with understanding the kingdom.  Otherwise we’ll create, in Jesus name, some sort of controlling legalism, or prosperity/healing thing, or obsession with creating conversions while we ignore the entire glorious physical dimension of Christ’s reign.  All of these have been tried, and they all end up being ugly.  We’d better be working hard to get it right.  This is where good reading can help, like this book, or this book, or even this book. Understanding  the kingdom, coupled with our pursuit of intimacy with Christ will conspire to create something beautiful:

An imagination saturated with a Christ formed view of our world, and some clear steps regarding our part in making it visible.

You may say that I’m a dreamer – but I’m not the only one.

Imagine that.

~Richard Dahlstrom


Book links were part of the original article; at C201, readers are encouraged to support their local Christian bookstore, if you are still fortunate enough to have one. Titles recommended were:

  • Surprised by Hope by N. T. Wright
  • The Unshakable Kingdom by E. Stanley Jones and
  • an e-book by the blog’s author, titled The Colors of Hope

Not linked, but referred to was the book, Colossians Remixed: Subverting The Empire by Brian J. Walsh and Sylvia C. Keesmatt (InterVarsity Press, 2004)

January 26, 2012

Issues: Righteous Violence

Part of living a life of Christ-following at the 201 or 301 level involves not only processing Bible text at a deeper level, but processing Bible application at a deeper level.  What do we do with social or political issues as they arise in light of Biblical teacing.  At the blog Dare to Live, we’re invited to consider Struggling with the Concept of Righteous Violence.  The article ends with a question, and I encourage you to click the link and respond at the author’s blog.

I recently finished reading and discussing Paul’s letter to the Romans with a fellow blogger. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Romans 13, but in verses 1-5 (subheading is “Submission to the Authorities”) there are some difficult words for someone like myself who feels passionately that non-violence is the best way to approach everything… even for those in authority. (Before I go any further, this post is not intended to offend or criticize those who are serving or have served in the military. I have deep respect for people who support their convictions with actions and are willing to make sacrifices on behalf of the people and principles they love.)

Romans 13: 1-5

1Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. 4 For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience.

On the surface, this seems political and quite unfair. There have been so many oppressive leaders. Surely we shouldn’t follow and submit to the authority of those we know are doing evil things. But my study leader shared a helpful perspective with me. She feels that this passage defends the office of authority, not specific rulers. I agree. God gave us a system of hierarchy, perhaps to address earthly chaos.

But I still have a hard time with this text when I read it sandwiched between Paul’s non-violent, “love your enemy” recommendations. And Paul was hardly submissive to the authorities. For that matter, neither was Jesus. So who are these “rulers” God has appointed to wield swords of righteousness? Do they know who they are? Do they have some kind of divine permission to read this passage from a position of power or should we all be reading it assuming that we are servants rather than authorities?

Jesus exhibited anger, yes, but didn’t advocate violence. Are we not all supposed to model our lives’ after Christ’s? Maybe this is an odd question, but do we actually take this advice too far sometimes? After all, Jesus had the ultimate authority. He tells us, “I and the Father are one.” John 10:30. If we can’t claim the same authority and knowledge, perhaps we shouldn’t always act as Jesus did – from a position of power. Although, if we should follow Jesus as closely as possible, then even the powerful must note that Jesus had incredible power, and yet chose to give himself to humanity as a servant.

In King’s Cross, Timothy Keller intimates the opinion that a God of love must also be a God of wrath. I agree completely. When you love, you become angry at that which harms or destroys the object of your love. But where do we draw the line? If your anger is righteous, are violent actions ever justified? Every fiber of my being shouts, “NO!” But even in the New Testament, God chose to end lives. Jesus did not. How do we reconcile these different facets of God’s character?

I guess I’ve always felt that God, in his power and intimate knowledge of all things, can take people out of the world if he sees fit, but as we do not have the benefit of… well… being God, we can hardly feel justified doing the same. So what do you make of Romans 13? Do you think it seems contradictory to other biblical themes?