On The Supernatural Power of Giving Thanks

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Pardon the expression . . . but if the Bible contains a string of “magic words” these are they. I’m referring to a phrase repeated numerous times in the scripture. In fact, these lines—in a few variations—are some of the most frequently repeated in all the Bible.

The Bible reports that on several occasions, the unified saying or singing of these words by a group of people was accompanied by either a miraculous deliverance or a tangible manifestation of God’s presence and power—or both.  These are clearly some powerful words.

We see the first recorded appearance of these extraordinary words in a song penned by King David to celebrate the bringing of the Ark of Covenant (and therefore the presence of God) back to the center of Israelite life. At the climax of a long, exuberant hymn of praise, David the extraordinary lyricist writes:

O give thanks to the Lord, for He is good;
For His lovingkindness is everlasting.

There they are. The phrases that seem to unleash Heaven’s power on earth.

Second Chronicles chapter 5 reveals how the unified singing of these special words resulted in the very glory of God Himself filling the room in cloud-like fashion—becoming so intense that the no one present could even stay on their feet.

In the 20th chapter of that same book, we see the Israelites going out into battle to face an overwhelmingly superior enemy. The army is led by the worship singers singing David’s special lyrics. Suddenly the enemy armies become confused and turn on each other. The attackers are destroyed without a single Israelite sword being unsheathed.

These words appear repeatedly in the Psalms of David and in a one of Jeremiah’s prophecies. As I said, they may very well be the most frequently repeated phrases in all the Bible. Why are they so obviously important and so clearly powerful?

The supernatural strength of this declaration is a three-fold cord. It is woven of these strands:

  1. A heart of gratitude
  2. An affirmation of God’s goodness
  3. A reminder that God’s love is covenantal and therefore relentless.

First, thankfulness is always the most appropriate posture for the child of God approaching the Father. Not fear. Not resentment. Gratitude.  This special declaration then gives us two big reasons why this is so.

First, “. . . for He is good.”

A faith in God’s fundamental goodness is the foundation upon which all sound theology must rest. It is the presupposition . . . the underlying premise . . .  from which all accurate logic and reasoning about God flows. It is the most important thing you can understand about Him. And it is the ultimate reason to be thankful—to God, and for God.

Second, gratitude is supremely appropriate because God’s “lovingkindess is everlasting.”

The Hebrew word translated “lovingkindess” here, or in some translations, “mercy,” is chesed. It speaks to the covenantal nature of God’s love for us. It means God’s love is more than an emotion or a disposition. His love is bound to us through an immutable, unchangeable, unbreakable covenant.

When you contemplate the truth that God loves you with a love that is relentless, tenacious, and impervious to your frailty, flaws and wavering faithfulness, the heart has only one rational response.

To cry, “thank you.”

And when we utter that cry together, it rends the very fabric separating Heaven from earth, allowing glory and power to pour down.

Abundant Grace

“The grace of God is abundant. It is for all lands, for all ages, for all conditions. It seems to undergird everything. Pardon for the worst sin, comfort for the sharpest suffering, brightest light for the thickest darkness.”

—Thomas De Witt Talmage (1874)

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Justice or Redemption?

Redeemer

Just a couple of additional clarifying (hopefully) thoughts about my previous post on theologically conservative Christians’ accelerating embrace of the term social justice.

First, note the qualifier in the sentence above—“theologically conservative.”

The fact is, theologically liberal Christians have been waving the social justice flag for more than 100 years. For example, I recently read a fascinating book published in 1917 titled, A Theology for the Social Gospel. The author, Walter Rauschenbusch, was a key figure in the Progressive – Social Gospel movement in the United States at the turn of the last century.

In it, he frankly admits that it’s impossible to reconcile the Christian faith’s traditional, atonement-centered theology with his and others’ to desire build the Kingdom of God on earth through governmental power and institutional reform—or in the modern liberal vernacular, through seeking “justice.”

So he concludes that orthodox Christian theology must evolve . . . i.e., be “expanded and readjusted.” From the opening page . . .

We have a social gospel. We need a systematic theology large enough to match it and vital enough to back it. [This] book offers concrete suggestions on how some of the most important sections of doctrinal theology may be expanded and readjusted to make room for the religious convictions summed up in ” the social gospel.”

In other words, if your preference for how the Kingdom of God manifests on earth doesn’t line up with the fundamental tenets of the Christian faith, instead of adjusting your preferences you simply endeavor to reinvent the faith.

The spiritual descendants of the Social Gospel justice-seekers are very much with us today in the Progressive/Liberal (theologically and politically) segment of the evangelical world.

This impulse to reshape Christian doctrine to fit a preferred socio-politico framework is on display in recent books like Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christianity and Tony Campolo’s Red Letter Christians. As with Rauschenbusch 100 years earlier, these leaders recognize that our stubborn devotion to a Gospel that is first and foremost about transformation of broken people, rather than the transformation of broken social systems, is the primary obstacle to establishing the Kingdom of God as they understand it.

Sorry

Man’s fall broke two things—Man and Creation.

Jesus’ work opened the door to the restoration (redemption) of both, but in a specific order. Redeemed people first. Then the restoration of the created order . . .

For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. (Romans 8:19,20)

Like the well-intentioned Social Gospel crusaders of a century ago, today’s Social Justice seekers turn this order on its head. They seek to roll back the effects of the curse on individuals–poverty, oppression, addiction, abuse–by healing creation (or the macro-order within it). This is precisely why any conversation with a justice-minded person about poverty, crime, or racism invariably turns to “root causes.”

And the identified root is almost always something “systemic.” (Systemic inequality of wealth distribution, systemic racism, systemic sexism, etc.)

capitalismIf the ills that must be cured are “systemic” rather than rooted in the brokenness of individuals, then the only logical solution becomes reform or replacement of the “system.”

By the way, this is why the favorite target of social justice seekers— both secular and liberal Christian—is the economic system known as Capitalism.

In reality, the Kingdom is revealed on earth from the bottom up–one redeemed person at a time. Yet a focus on social justice seeks manifestation of the Kingdom from the top down–by endeavoring to heal the systems and institutions of society. Viewing the world’s ills through the lens of justice (as currently defined by many young believers–See my previous post) makes every problem a “fairness” problem instead of a brokenness problem.

Justice-minded efforts to heal the pain of individuals by reforming/replacing systems invariably require concentrating immense power and control in the hands of an enlightened, benevolent few. This never ends well. Ever.

Why? Because people are broken. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. And the law of unintended consequences is a merciless “B”-word.

Yes, as God redemptively heals my individual brokenness He frees me to be generous to the poor with the money He has entrusted to me. But this is very different from my voting—in the name of justice and fairness—to use the coercive, life-destroying power of the State to force my neighbor to be generous, whether he wants to or not.

We currently live in a land of people that love to be generous with other people’s money. But as Margaret Thatcher once rightly observed about socialism, “. . . eventually you run out of other people’s money.”

At the same time, as God redemptively heals my individual brokenness and the brokenness of many other individuals around me, we begin to see the systems in which we participate experiencing redemptive transformation as well. Call it systemic redemption.

[Jesus] tried again. “How can I picture God’s kingdom? It’s like yeast that a woman works into enough dough for three loaves of bread—and waits while the dough rises.” (Luke 13:20,21)

Let me close by adding that most of the excellent Evangelical humanitarian and anti-human trafficking organizations that have recently adopted social justice as a key part of their missional vocabulary are indeed attacking the world’s pain at the individual level. They are bottom-up redeemers   . . . which is precisely why I wish they’d stop using the term social justice to describe their goals.

Why I Wish Christians Would Stop Using the Term “Social Justice”

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Words and meanings matter.

This truth appears consistently in George Orwell’s writing and is a key theme of both 1984 and Animal Farm. In a 1946 essay titled “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell writes:

“But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”

As I said, words and their meanings matter. I mention this because with increasing regularity I’m hearing great Christian people with great hearts doing great thing using a certain phrase to describe their work and mission. That phrase is “social justice.”

Theologically conservative Christian colleges have added Social Justice tracks to their academic offerings. Outstanding anti-human trafficking ministries feature the phrase in their mission statements.

First of all, dear Christian reader, if you’re a regular user of the term social justice—and some of my friends and colleagues are—please know that I know what you mean when you use it. A younger generation of Christians has adopted the phrase social justice to refer to action focused on helping the poor and oppressed. But adopted from where?

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Now, I don’t want to be the cranky, pedantic nitpicker. On the contrary, I want to be the cheery, pedantic nitpicker, so here’s why I wince every time I hear a real-deal evangelical Christian throw out the term “social justice” in an earnest, non-ironic way.

A Murderous Thug

A Murderous Thug

For decades the term was a key part of the vocabulary of Marxist revolutionaries and Catholic Liberation Theology activists in Third World countries. It was a chosen to make the ugly implications of Marxist ideology—confiscation of private property, coercive redistribution of wealth, exalting an all-powerful government into the role of a messiah/savior—more palatable to the masses and more difficult to oppose.

After all, what decent person wants to be seen as opposing “justice?” Especially the “social” kind.

This is precisely what George Orwell was warning us about.

In true Orwellian fashion, social justice became a key fixture in the vocabulary of the academic Left on college campuses all over the nation as a code phrase for messianic, utopian egalitarianism enforced coercively by a god-like State. From there, not surprisingly, it has filtered into the vocabulary of an entire generation of young, idealistic secular Americans.

In this context, the meaning of the term has begun to broaden at the edges.

Language has corrupted thought to the point that I now frequently hear it used by socialists to refer to any situation in which all “right-thinking”, i.e. politically liberal, people are supposed to be outraged that one person has more stuff than another person.

Adopting the Vocabulary of the Pagan World

socjustYounger (and in some cases not-so-young) Christians with a commendable and throughly biblical heart for seeing poor people lifted out of poverty have fully embraced the term social justice as a banner to wave over their cause.

Here’s why that is regrettable.

First of all, “justice” is a very biblical word and you can’t read the Bible honestly without coming away with the impression that it’s something God cares very much about.

It is a joy for the just to do justice, But destruction will come to the workers of iniquity. (Proverbs 21:15)

However, if you take the time to read all the appearances of the word justice in your English Bible you’ll find that it carries a very specific meaning–and that meaning relates to punishment of criminal, lawless behavior. In other words . . .

Justice is primarily judicial, not economic.

In other words, a thing can be unfair, unfortunate, undesirable, and/or utterly unpleasant without being unjust as the Bible conceives justice.  The just-ness of a thing depends entirely upon righteous legal and civil codes of law.

“Injustice” in the Bible relates to law-breakers getting away with breaking the law. Or people being defrauded out of what is rightfully theirs.

Yes, in the Bible the poor, widows and orphans are frequently mentioned in relationship to the administration of justice, precisely because they can easily get a raw deal in the court system. The wealthy can bribe judges and bureaucrats. The poor can’t.

As God makes clear to the Israelites in His detailed instructions on how to set up a civilization: “You shall not distort justice; you shall not be partial, and you shall not take a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and perverts the words of the righteous.” (Deuteronomy 16:19)

occupyAs God said to Judge Moses: “You shall not pervert the justice due to your needy brother in his dispute.” (Exodus 23:6) The Bible also recognizes the danger of justice being perverted due to pressure from populist, democratic demands. “You shall not follow the masses in doing evil, nor shall you testify in a dispute so as to turn aside after a multitude in order to pervert justice.” (Exodus 23:2)

Both the rich individual and the poor riot mob can influence the judge or jury. Both pervert “justice.”

Contrast this biblical view of justice with the dominant pop culture view that labels any situation in which one person (or country) has more stuff that another as inherently and by definition “unjust.”

Of course, this view is impossible to square with Jesus’ parables about about Masters who entrust varying financial sums to his stewards or who pay end-of-day workers a much higher hourly rate than all-day workers.

In the dominant, liberal, pagan culture, true social justice connotes much more than concern for the lot of the poor, it requires seething hostility toward the wealthy and successful–one that values their destruction as much or more than it seeks the elevation of the poor. By embracing the term, Christians unwittingly partake of the whole noxious stew.

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SJWs

Recently, another great reason for Christians to abandon the phrase social justice has emerged . . . the rise of the “Social Justice Warrior” meme. This obnoxious meme has become so ubiquitous that you rarely hear the words social justice anymore without the “warrior” noun tacked on for good measure.

The term is in part an outgrowth of a nasty, global online food fight between misogynist gamers and grim doctrinaire feminists that goes by the name and hashtag GamerGate. If you’re not familiar with this Internet war of words known as Gamergate, I won’t try to explain it here. Let it suffice to say it’s one of those conflicts like the Iran-Iraq war back in the 80s in which there is no side to root for and you just kind of wish both sides could lose.

If all the other realities I outlined above weren’t reason enough to avoid applying the term social justice to vital Kingdom work, the fact that the phrase is now forever linked to a ridiculous and degrading online war should settle it.

We’re About Redemption, Not Justice

Frankly, the work Christians are doing around the world . . .  work like ending the horror of human sex slavery and rescuing the souls who have been swallowed by it’s hellish maw . . . is too important and too holy to be saddled with all the connotative baggage that accompanies the phrase social justice.

Jesus came to seek and to save that which is lost. He came not to condemn the world but to redeem it. In other words, we’re about redemption, not justice.

Words and meanings matter. And language can corrupt thought.

That’s why I wish my brothers and sisters would find a less polluted term than social justice to describe their vital redemptive work.

SJ Poster

Out of Egypt

Few things in life give me more pure pleasure than visiting a faraway place I’ve never seen. That delight is doubled when the place is rich with historical and biblical significance.  Add to this the opportunity to have my bride along for the ride and  . . . well, that’s the trifecta.

A few days ago we returned from a week in Cairo as the grateful guests of a ministry upon whose board I’ve served for the last ten years. This was my first time in the Middle East and my first extended stay in an Islamic country (not counting my frequent trips to the UK which, sadly, is gradually becoming an Islamic nation.)

I’m a history fanatic. And the sense of history you get in Cairo is almost overwhelming. The Pharaohs, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, and a succession of Islamic caliphates have all left their marks on Cairo.

For example, on our first full day, we visited the Giza Plateau which holds the great pyramid of Cheops and the Sphinx. For more than 3,800 years it was the tallest man-made structure on earth. It was amazing to think that Abraham and Sarah might have glimpsed these architectural wonders when they sojourned into Egypt around 2,000 B.C.

If so, they would have seen the pyramids clad in polished white limestone and topped with gleaming gold capstones. They would have been almost blinding in the bright Egyptian sun. But here’s the truly mind-blowing thought . . .

If Abraham did get deep enough into Egypt to see the Great Pyramid of Cheops, at that moment it would have already been standing there in place for 1,000 years.

The City

IMG_0840Cairo is home to roughly 20 million people. To put that in perspective, that’s more than the populations of Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, San Antonio, and Austin combined. A lot more.

As you might expect, the traffic is astonishing. As in many non-Western nations, things like lane lines and signs are universally ignored. Even so, everyone eventually gets where they are going, although much honking of car horns is required by all.

As I observed to my wife, in Cairo sounding your horn communicates, “Be aware of me.” Or, “Look out, I’m coming through.”  In Texas, honking communicates, “Please pull over so we can have a fist fight.”

The Political Situation

Many friends and relatives raised an eyebrow when we told them we were going to Cairo. That’s understandable. It seems like just the other day that the nightly news was showing hundreds of thousands of protesters in Tahrir Square and we were hearing reports of Coptic Christians being attacked and Christian homes burned.

The fact is, Cairo is extremely stable, moderate and welcoming of visitors. In fact, they are pleading for the tourists to return. And they should.

The current government of Egypt is a secular government that has no use whatsoever for the Muslim Brotherhood. In fact, they’ve been actively squashing the Brotherhood like a bug. They have also been quietly cooperating with Israel in their conflict with Hamas and aggressively hammering IMG_0817Islamist extremists operating in the Sinai.

Egypt’s sternest challenges are economic. And the biggest hindrances to economic progress are vestigial remnants from Egypt’s experiment with Socialism under Nasser back in the 60s. Many of the populist/socialist laws enacted under Nasser have proven nearly impossible to repeal. They’re weighing Egypt down like a boat anchor.

Spiritual Climate

The most impressive and memorable aspect of our trip was the believers we met. Each day we encountered talented, passionate, delightful young Christians who are doing amazing things in media. The impact of what they are doing is reaching far beyond Cairo and is fueling ministry, discipleship, and evangelism throughout the Arabic speaking world. You’ll find samples of their work and ministry here, here and here.

IMG_0916Amazing, effective evangelism is currently taking place across the Middle East. And most of that activity is home grown. By that I mean that it’s not U.S. churches driving most of these efforts (although many generous Americans are helping to fund them.) It is the evangelical churches in places like Cairo providing the strategy, the organization, the prayer, and the people.

Throughout the world of Islam, the gospel is spreading and thriving–largely underneath the radar. And you’ll find the epicenter of this revival in Cairo.

By the way, one morning we toured “Coptic Cairo”–a ancient section of the city containing a number of ancient churches and a synagogue.

Here, the name of Jesus has been proclaimed and worshipped continuously for  nearly 1,800 years.

For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.–Habakkuk 2:14

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