I have been reading through a book with my children telling the life stories of great heroes of the Christian faith. It has short biographies of people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and John Bunyan. This week we have been reading about the life of Peter Cartwright. He lived from 1785 to 1872 and was a traveling minister as this fledgling nation began to move westward.
Oftentimes there weren’t enough townspeople, or even enough of a town, to support their own church minister, so ministers would “ride the circuit” where they would travel around the area holding tent revivals and church camps. Peter Cartwright was known for being bold in standing firm on true biblical doctrine, even confronting the stereotypical charlatans trying to dupe people out of money by peddling a false doctrine. But more importantly, he was known for speaking out against the institution of slavery.
Cartwright knew there were many Christians attending these camp revivals who owned slaves. But somehow they had failed to see the contradiction of living as a Christian while owning another person as property. To address this, Cartwright could have pounded the Bible in the pulpit and thundered at the crowds, demanding them to emancipate their slaves. Instead, he preached on God’s commands for us to love others – all others. And you cannot love another person while owning them as a slave.
It was like a light bulb finally went off in the minds of these people. Many of them realized how they could not follow God while owning slaves. One woman, Mrs. Stewart, had been so stirred in her heart upon realizing what she was doing that she decided to free her slaves and led many others to do the same.
Through his life and ministry, Mr. Cartwright was able to appeal to the hearts of these Christian slave owners to change their stance on slavery. But the discussion about his life with my children led to an important question. How could something that is so obvious to us today (you can’t own another person and be following God) be so unclear to these people? How did that happen? And for that matter, how could Christian people not see the wrong in slavery? How did the Christians in Germany not see the wrong in Hitler’s regime during Bonhoeffer’s life? How did Christians not see the wrong in segregation during Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life? How do Christians now not see the evil in things like abortion? I think we can find three possible reasons for it that apply not only to these examples, but to many other current social issues.
1.) Not all Christians are actually Christians. This is probably the most important thing for anyone to understand. Not everyone who describes themselves as “Christians” are Christians. So when we look in the past to try to see why Christians acted in certain ways, many of those Christians were not really Christians. Just because someone claims that title or checks that box on a form does not mean he or she is a true follower of Christ.
Jesus warns us about this in Matthew 7:21, “Not everyone who says to Me ‘Lord, Lord’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven.” This should be the scariest verse in the Bible for many people. Not everyone who says they are following Jesus actually belong to Jesus.
So how do we know who are true Christians and who are not? Jesus tells us how in John 14:15. “If you love Me, keep my commands.” John says the same thing in 1 John 2:3-4, “And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments.” This isn’t some “judgy” way of looking at other people. Jesus equates our love for Him to our obedience of Him. Though many people may say they “love Jesus,” if they are not doing God’s will, then they do not. They are not following Him, thus they are not real Christians.
Jesus says in Matthew 7:13, “Wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it.” Jesus tells us that there will be few who take the difficult path of following God in true obedience. Those who will enter the kingdom of God by the narrow gate are not those who who just had an emotional experience at youth camp, or who had a fun week at VBS, or who attend church when their spouse drags them. Only those who walk in obedience to Him. And because of that, we should honestly expect to see more people not following God’s will than those who are.
If our love for God is determined by our obedience to God, then what is God’s will that we are to obey? The Pharisees asked, “’Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?’ And Jesus said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Matthew 22:36-39). Jesus also says, “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matthew 5:44).
Jesus tells his disciples in John 13:34: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” The first thing we must do to walk in obedience is to love other people. Which people? Neighbors, enemies, and those who persecute you. That includes pretty much everyone. We are to love other people, whether they are friends or enemies, whether they are a different gender or different race, whether they have a different political view or different nationality. We are to even love the people who don’t love other people!
What else are we to do in obedience? First Thessalonians 5:17-18 says, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” So obedience to God would include being thankful and rejoicing IN ALL THINGS, whether it is fair and just, or unfair and unjust; whether it is in wealth or in poverty; whether in fullness or in hunger; whether in success or in suffering. And the way to be able to do that is by praying without ceasing.
First Thessalonians 4:3 says, “For this is the will of God: your sanctification; that you abstain from sexual immorality.” Peter emphasizes this in 1 Peter 1:16, “God says, ‘Be holy, for I am holy.’” This is the will of God to be holy in our conduct, and specifically to exhibit holiness in our sexual conduct. He is our God and we are His people. We are to be holy because God is holy.
How can we ever do that? We all fail at doing God’s will all the time, so the question becomes: are you even striving to? Are you brokenhearted and grieved when you do fail? Do you approach God with a broken and contrite heart, sorrowful over your sin? Or do you presume on God’s grace, hardened to the convictions of the Holy Spirit and unwilling to repent? Are you calling evil good and good evil? Are you reveling in your sin or do you weep over it? Are you supporting, encouraging, and engaging in things that go against God's Word? These are the things that tell us whether we are true Christians or not.
2.) We fail to follow God when our actions are guided by society. In each of the examples given at the beginning, the Christians in those societies were misguided in how they were treating others because they were using society’s standards to determine their stances on those issues. It was socially acceptable to own slaves. It was just “the way life was” for races to be segregated. Everyone else blamed the Jews for the failures of the nation. A woman just gets to choose whether to stay pregnant or not. In each of those scenarios, it had reached a social norm to treat certain humans as “less than” human. And that made it easier for folks to live with this dichotomy of “being a Christian” and devaluing other humans.
Anytime throughout history that man has placed himself in a position to assign worth to other humans, he has failed miserably. Wherever man gets to make those decisions, there will always be a people-group oppressed, devalued, and dehumanized. Wherever people allow God to set the standard of human worth, people are uplifted, loved, cared for, treasured, and given life. Because God gives worth to all people. Jesus died in order to bring salvation to all people. As Paul says in Galatians 3:28, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."
How do we avoid dehumanizing others in our society? We must continually look to God’s Word to form our opinions, our stances, our actions, and our behaviors. When we look at social norms, we will get it wrong every time. So what do you use to determine your stance on things, your feelings? voter polls and social media trends? hashtags and marches? Or do you use God’s Word?
3.) We fail to follow God when we allow society to rename the issue. In order for evil to prevail, it simply needs to be renamed so people don’t recognize it as evil. Society will hijack the terms surrounding the issue to make it more palatable. In the Civil War, one side was fighting for the emancipation of slaves; the other side was fighting for “State’s rights,” where the issue of slavery would be left up to the states instead of the federal level. In Germany, Nazis convinced people to look the other way as Jews were persecuted for national pride. The people were convinced that these steps were necessary to get the nation back to a place of pride and prominence. So you were either for Jews or you were for Germany. The evil of murdering babies in the womb has been renamed “women’s reproductive rights” or a “woman’s right to choose.” It’s called pro-choice because who wants to be against “choice”?
Each of these issues has been framed in a way that disguises the evil that is actually being discussed. Slavery should have never been about state vs. federal laws. It should have been about human dignity and worth. Nazism should have never been about the pride of the German nation vs. Jews being blamed for its failure. It should have been about human dignity and worth. Abortion should have never been about “women’s rights to choose” vs. the right to life. It should have been about human dignity and worth. Again, we are in grave danger when we reframe and rename the issue to hide the true evil at stake.
How do we prevent that from happening? What do you allow to frame the issue for you? Can you see past the hashtags and media hype and taglines about an issue? Do you stop to consider the larger idea at stake or just your personal preference? Do you consider what God would desire or are you more interested in the social hype for the cause of the day? Do you value your political party over what God is for and against?
Ultimately, we cannot always look at what some Christians do to determine what is right and wrong. Many times the "Christians" are not actually Christians. Many times they are true Christians who are failing to do what God commands. Or maybe they are individuals who are too swayed by cultural terms and trends than they are the Bible. Therefore, we must always go back to God’s Word to guide our actions instead of what those around us are doing. We must consider what God commands from us, not what others demand.
Yet we are all humans living among humans, all equally sinning. What do we do when all of these efforts fail? What do we do when “Christians” are not truly following God and aren’t obeying His commands? What do we do when other people’s actions are more guided by society than by God’s Word? How do we respond when society has renamed evil as good? We go back to what God’s Word says. We love others, regardless of their lack of love. And then we consider the words of Jesus in Matthew 6:14, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.”
Forgiveness is very difficult. We may ask ourselves, "How many times do I have to offer forgiveness?" Peter brought up this very dilemma. In Matthew 18:21-22, “Then Peter came to Him and asked, ‘Lord, how many times will my brother sin against me and I forgive him and let it go? Up to seven times?’ Jesus answered him, ‘I say to you, not up to seven times, but seventy times seven.’”