Sharpening iron

As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another. Proverbs 27:17

I’ve been part of a men’s discipleship group at New Life for five years. It was initiated by two young men who were new to the church at the time. The group didn’t move in the direction they wanted and eventually they left both the men’s group and the church. Subsequently they also moved out of the area. But the group they had planted remained and thrived in the lives of four men. All of us are older. All of us are elders. Occasionally others will drop in for a visit, but four men have made a commitment and often experience spiritual highlights early on a Saturday morning.

The meetings are usually unplanned without designated leadership, but they follow a predictable format. We just talk. We are comfortable around one another and there is high personal trust. So the guys open up without fear of rejection or condemnation. But we challenge one another directly. The most common topic by far is politics. Closely related is the culture war. That often leads to the challenge of evangelism in a changing world.

In many of these discussions I remain silent for fifteen or twenty minutes while the guys vent. Eventually they ask me what I think or I finally say, “May I address this with you?” Then it’s my turn to vent. We open the Scriptures and God leads us through a remarkable time of insight and depth. Sometimes we go on for two hours. Many times we walk out of the session praising God and saying to ourselves, “Where did all those insights come from? We didn’t plan it, but God delivered. It was a wonderful time of refreshment. God is so good to us!”

Over time, no matter where we began our conversations, we kept arriving at the same conclusions from our time together: We need to change our unwritten core values of status quo and power. We started putting the ideas on a portable white board. They were radical changes, like stop judging others or stop trying to control others. We talked about radical acceptance and service from a position of powerlessness. Scary stuff. Sometimes other people would look at the list on the white board and comment, “I don’t like it!”

That’s understandable. I’m not so sure we like it ourselves, either, because our stubborn old values continue to assert themselves with force. I keep dragging out the white board. I point to it and say, “We’ve talked about this a dozen times from several passages in Scripture. This is what we always conclude, right?”

“Right,” they say. But it’s hard to put it into action. We’re still suspicious of outsiders. We are still quick to point out the faults of others. We still want to be in control of election results. We’re still angry about cultural changes. For the past year or so I’ve begun to wonder if the men’s group is stuck. Where’s the life change?

Two weeks ago, God gave me a breakthrough. It turns out we were off track and have been for a long time. I’m not the sharpest knife in the drawer. Others saw the problem and I didn’t. I’ll write about it next time.

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Red and Blue Politics

Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people. 1 Peter 2:13-15

A few weeks ago a man came to my office for a visit. He was agitated about politics, a condition I see often around here. After we unpacked his issue (the presidential election), he asked, “Do you think God will hold us accountable for the way we vote?” The way he phrased the question indicated he already had an answer. He just wanted confirmation.

“Do you think there’s a right and wrong way to vote?” I fired back.

“Yes,” he responded, meaning that voting for Candidate “A” is morally right and voting Candidate “B” is morally wrong.

We reviewed how Jesus-loving, Bible-believing Christians vote for both major political parties. They do it by focusing on different values. If God judges us for our vote, many people trying to get it right actually get it wrong.

That didn’t really create a breakthrough for us. Then a thought popped into my head which led to an aha-moment. “However much God holds us accountable for our presidential vote,” I ventured, “there is something he holds us accountable for more–how we honor the government we actually have.” We turned to 1 Peter 2:13-15 and walked through it. It was a calming experience.

Neither Israel nor Rome was a democracy, so the Bible wasn’t written as a voting guide. I can’t think of a single Bible passage instructing us how to select a political government. On the other hand, there are some very clear instructions about submitting to the governing authorities who already rule over us.

A lot of Christians are really worked up about the upcoming presidential election. Some don’t like either of the major party candidates. Others are hopping onto one band wagon or another, including voting for minor candidates or leaving the top of the ballot blank. Flip on Christian radio and you’ll hear urgency about this election. Franklin Graham recently posted, “I believe the election coming up in November is the most critical in our lifetime – so much hangs in the balance.”

That’s the itchy bite of the election bug. People are scratching all over the place. Every political itch has something in common: desire for a specific outcome, although the evangelical church is deeply divided over what that outcome should be. I suspect the itch doesn’t come so much from the importance of the election as much as it rises from a fear of losing political power. Submitting to the government we have is more important than voting for the government we want.

Christians (and others) may be frantic about who will be sworn in on January 20, 2017, but God isn’t. First of all, he already knows who it will be. In fact, he has already decreed it (cf. Dan. 2:21). Second, a mere president is neither a threat nor an assistant to the Creator-King of the universe. When nations rebel, God just scoffs at them (cf. Psalms 2:4). We can rest assured God is not sweating out this election. If God’s not worried, why should we worry?

By all means, go to the polls. Cast your vote (or refrain from voting if that’s your choice) carefully. We’ll give account to God for every idle word and deed, so we’ll certainly give account for our citizenship as well. It’s a great privilege to participate in a democracy.

But don’t freak out over the election results. Here are a few things that don’t hang in the balance between red and blue on November 8th: God’s sovereign rule over the world; God’s providence over his creation; the gospel of Jesus Christ; the church’s mandate to love God and love our neighbor; the Great Commission; a good reason for Christians to worry about the future; and God’s command for believers to submit to human authority and honor their political leaders. Those are just samples of what won’t change on election day regardless of the results.

Many Christians with a political itch are probably lax about the divine mandate in 1 Peter 2:13-15. I’ve observed a lot of disrespect toward our government, both in the church and in Christian media. Committing to honor the leaders already in power helps relieve the bite of the election bug. The man left my office much calmer than he arrived. His demeanor is improved.  I’d call that real political progress.

If you live near Clarkfield, Minnesota, and would like to hear more about this subject, I’ll be preaching about the political itch at New Life Church on Sunday, September 18th. You’re invited to drop in and visit. You can check us out at http://www.newlifecma.com.