Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Food for thought

Here's a rant dripping with cynisism if ever there was one. I could be wrong - often am, but hey, at least it's food for thought. I go off on a few tangents, sorry. I tried to be organised but found disorganisation easier. =)

I have recently been reading "How to Win Friends and Influence People", by Dale Carnegie. It is an interesting book, that says things we could all guess but often ignore. Not surprisingly, to have friends, you must be friendly. The core of this book comes from what being truely friendly actually is - a genuine love for other people. People love people who genuinely love them, it's simple.

And yet, the examples he gives in the book amply reflect how little most people actually care about others, and how much they care about themselves. The book has many examples showing just what lengths people will go to bolster their ego and make themselves feel important. People become driven, even controlled by satisfying their egos. Yes, many people are self-centered, and sadly Christians are often no exception.

I think the Pharisees of Jesus' time were self-centered, proud, and always seeking to bolster their ego. Jesus rebuked them, but as I perused the internet I was amazed at the variety of ideas on why He did so. By most outward measures, the Pharisees would have been good, Godly people - yet it is clear their hearts were "far from God". The most common idea was that they "tried to make themselves righteous by following the law." Yet, I wonder if that is really at the core of thier rebuke.

Matt 23:13 "But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them. 15 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves... 23 "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. 24 You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel! 25 "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26 You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may become clean. 27 "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. 28 So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.

The Pharisees were outwardly devout, but Jesus called them hypocrites - for they were not devoted to God, but to themselves. They glorified their selfish ways, and indeed added more Laws so that they could glory in keeping them as Josephus writes: "The Pharisees have delivered to the people a great many observances by succession from their fathers, which are not written in the laws of Moses." The pride of the Pharisees is evident in Jesus' story in Luke 18:9-14.

Many seem to take this story to illustrate that the Pharisees thought they could make themselves righteous by following the law. People look to this verse and others like Romans 10:2-3, and say that they thought they could be saved by "keeping the law" instead of "believing in Christ" - but I think this is missing the point. It seems Jesus rebuked the "white-washed tombs" because they honoured God with their lips, but their hearts were far from Him. They tried to make the Word of God into a set of rules that they could follow without actually obeying the heart of the law, because that's hard, so that they would still be able to gloat and bolster their egos by 'following the law'.

So, perhaps the "error of the Pharisees" was not one of trying to obtain righteousness by keeping the law. I suspect they knew all to well the condition of their hearts and their lack of devotion to God. Perhaps, they didn't want 'righteousness'; and chose instead respect, admiration, and large egos as they served not God but themselves.


It is clearly bad for our faith to be merely an external act, while insides our un-loving, selfish hearts are nothing more than a clanging gong. I wonder at the comparison between the Pharisees and the modern church. Like the Pharisees, Christians today are in general devout - but fortunately many are truly devoted to God rather than themselves, and are thus not so hypocritical. Hopefully, many Christians today are not as self-centred and proud and eager to bolter their egos as the Pharisees. These are good things about the majority of the modern church.

Yet, some in the modern church take pains to state we are 'saved by grace' and not by following 'Law', which they say was what Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for. Not only does 'law' refer to Mosiac law, but I gather they think that obeying any set of rules does not save someone into the kingdom of God - and this is the irony, I find. While they say people are not saved by 'keeping the law' - they believe people are saved by following several "steps to Salvation".

A quick search on the internet yielded these great 'recipes' for "Salvation" (i.e. becoming a Christian, gaining eternal life, etc etc), to which I have given names and added comments to in bold:

5-Step Baptist

1) hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
2) believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God
3) repent of sins in order to be saved
4) confess that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God
5) be baptized in order to be saved

4-Step Pentecostal

1) realize God loves you and wants you to have eternal life.

2) realize that you are sinful, and your sin separates you from God.

3) realize that only in JESUS CHRIST can forgiveness of sin and salvation be yours.

4) receive Jesus Christ as your personal savior and Lord.

5-Step Alter-Call Special

Step 1 - Awareness of our sinful nature
Will you now admit that you need help? Do you see that you cannot meet God’s perfect standard no matter how hard you try? Do you see that you need forgiveness for your sin?

Step 2 - Repentance
Repentance is not being sorry! It is a change of mind followed by a change in actions. Do you choose now to turn from sin? Will you begin now to do things God’s way?

Step 3- Believe in Jesus Christ
Do you believe that Jesus lived here as a man, died, rose from the dead, and was seen by many? Do you believe that His sacrifice was for you? Will you allow the blood of Jesus to cover your sin?

Step 4 - Receive the Gift
Do you now believe in your heart that God sent Jesus to rescue you from sin and certain death? Will you say with your mouth, Jesus is Lord? Are you ready make Jesus the lord of your life?

Step 5 - Jesus as Savior
If you can answer yes to the questions above, you are ready to receive the the free gift of God and make Jesus your Lord and Savior. He will now become the sacrifice for you so you can have a good relationship with God. To receive the gift all you have to do is ask for it.

I recognize that I am a sinner, and in need of help. I am asking forgiveness for the sins I have committed and making the decision to turn from my evil ways and follow your ways. I believe that Jesus lived on earth as a man, died, and rose from the dead to take my place
(What?). I believe in my heart and confess with my mouth that Jesus is Lord (Lord of China? Europe? What is a Lord anyway? Doesn't seem to affect me, does it? I'll try it for a few weeks anyway.). I now receive your free gift of salvation (Of course, I don't really feel like I've just got anything - I don't even really know what the thing I don't feel is. But I'm "declaring in faith", and that makes me feel spiritual doesn't it? Something about life after death, I think... too bad about life now then.).

Congratulations you are now part of the body of Christ!

There they are - three popular fast-food recipies for Salivation, which should all be served after an entrée of stirring singing on top of smooth background music, with a side of ice-cool preaching, and sprinkled with nuts.

All these miss the point and power of the Gospel. Needless to say, I think most of the verses used to support these recipes are grossly misinterpreted. And I wonder how many false teachers (who think they are expousing the truth) use these as fashionable ways to boost their egos and their wallets as they, like the Pharisees, 'cross sea and land to make a single convert, and make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as themselves' (Matt 23:15). Converts are born again into new life, but it is only one in their imaginations. "The Kingdom of God is unseen", quote Christians, but it should not require a leap of ignorance to think one's life is transformed when it is not. Welcome to the real world - we should be freed from sin in this life.

It seems to me these simple steps to Salvation are just a different set of 'laws' by which we are supposedly saved. The external "keeping the law" of the Pharisees is replaced by an external "changing how you live", a believing a set of statements, and a recieving of something 'freely given' (So long as you do all the preceeding steps, of course. Wouldn't want to have Salvation actually freely given by grace through faith now, would we?). The shallowness of it sickens me. Most people who pass through the Christian Take-Away shop and order one of these recipes don't stay for long, because they find it is not real. A religous, external "Gospel" does not set free and change lives. Nevertheless, I am sure many people have come to stay the Kingdom after being served such 5-course dishes, but I am equally sure it is only by God's grace and often little to do with these steps.

It is clear that we cannot obtain the grace of God by following a man-made formula. Yet, why do so many Christians these days think we can? I am convinced that Salvation cannot be packaged into a neat recipe for mass-indoctrination. I think the Gospel's power is found not in religious alter-call ceremony, but rather in the reality of love revealed by the church and the Holy Spirit.

So we should be devoted to God and not ourselves, and out of that devotion to God should come a real love for other people. I am far from perfect here. This self-centered capitalist society has gulled me into selfishness somewhat. Just as it was for the Pharisees, it is hard to be devoted to God instead of myself. So, when I see someone who is homeless and hungry out on the street, instead of pretending not to notice or care, I would care for him and invite him to my home, feed him, and help him in his life. Perhaps, I would help him get a job, show him he is loved by being the one person in his life who actually considers his life more important than a few days of my own. Truly, that would be showing someone the power of the Gospel - something that could inspire someone to love that much, and forever change someone's life. I pray my self-centeredness will decrease enough for me to do such things. For whatever we do for the least of these, we do as unto Christ.

The Gospel is so that we love God and love others, and in love, real faith is inherently practical. What is the opposite to love? Not hatred, but apathy. If selfishness is being devoted to one's self, surely devotion to God and others is it's opposite. So, I pray we can all become a little more focussed on the heart of the Gospel, and be doers of the Word and not just sayers of the 5 Key Steps to Take-Away Faith.

(There's a play on words at the end there... quite proud of it... wait, that's pride... hmmm... but if pride is mixed with humour does it still count?)