Are We in an “Epidemic of Untruthfulness”?

In a commencement address at Rice University in Texas on May 8, 2018, the former NYC mayor, Michael Bloomberg, told a graduating class that his nation is experiencing an “epidemic of untruthfulness.” He characterized what is happening in Washington and the countless evasions as “an endless barrage of lies.”

He reminded the graduates that they signed an honesty code when they enrolled in Rice University and had affirmed that code many times since. His concern was that they take the code with them into the workaday world.

He was concerned with good reason. When the moral standards of society sag, truthfulness sags too. It was in such a perilous time that the prophet Isaiah said to Judah, Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness (Isaiah 5:20). His warning was that the nation’s moral compass was damaged.

Honesty is not required just randomly here and there, from time to time. Whatever our function in society, whether we are parents, administrators, salesmen, teachers, or ministers, the call for honesty confronts us daily. Honesty is a critical requirement woven into the warp and woof of human existence.

If a secular voice like Mayor Bloomberg’s acknowledges the low state of honesty in society and calls for an upgrade should the issue not be of special concern to Christians?

After all, we are followers of Jesus who is the embodiment of truth. Again and again he introduced his sayings with the declaration, “I tell you the truth.” He both was, and he spoke truth. Furthermore, our Scriptures call us incessantly to the practice of truth. Paul exhorts, You must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to (your) neighbor (Ephesians 4:25).

Truth is not always spoken in the same tone. It is sometimes spoken gently, as in the reporting of a death; sometimes firmly when checking a lad’s homework; and sometimes painfully when speaking of a child’s waywardness. But truth must be spoken. Untruthfulness breaks God’s law and eventually exacts its toll.

Moreover, the concept of truthfulness does not exist in isolation. A host of related words bring home to us both the force and the reach of this word — words like integrity, virtue, reliability, righteousness, uprightness.

Even if we are not dispensers of what Mayor Bloomberg called “an endless barrage of lies” there are many ways we might fall short of truthfulness — by remaining silent when we should speak up, by spinning half truths, by exaggerating for effect, by omission of nuance. We speak glibly of white lies and polite lies and evasive lies but in using them we play with fire.

Who of us will ponder deeply our truthfulness and the above companion words and with unblinking confidence say, “In every situation, that’s me”? Only when we commit ourselves seriously to truthfulness do we learn how difficult it is always to tell the truth. Even when we tell the truth we do so by the grace of God.

Mayor Bloomberg made a sorely needed point: we are living in times when honesty is not cherished and dishonesty is easily excused. The Scriptures alert us to this even among believers when they say, Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord, but those who act faithfully are his delight. (Proverbs 12:22)

I offer this further comment to the mayor’s excellent address: one can be committed to truthfulness without being Christian, but one cannot be Christian without cherishing truthfulness. The psalmist prayed, Lead me in your truth and teach me. (Psalm 25:5)


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Photo credit: Bloomberg Philanthropies, Public Domain (via flickr.com)

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The Question Kathleen and I Often Ask Each Other

Kathleen and I have a particular question we ask each other  with some regularity. We may pose it early in the morning or as evening approaches. Our question: Do you have a song?

The answer is almost always, yes! So we then compare notes.

The tunes we report playing in our memories are most often a stanza from a favorite hymn or gospel song and quite often one we may have sung in church during our childhood. We find making the comparisons fun.

She and I experience these songs differently. In her memory Kathleen sings the words to herself. For me, it is more like a choir singing in the distance and I am the listener.

Yesterday Kathleen told me her song reached back to Sunday School in her early years, and that she couldn’t recall having sung it in ages. It was from that little song about God’s care for the sparrow. The refrain goes:

He loves me too!

He loves me too!

I know He loves me too.

Because he loves the little birds,

I know he loves me too.

It’s a confident, happy little piece, assuring the singer that we are loved by God.

In the Saskatchewan church of my childhood we sang without instrumental accompaniment but some worshipers were able to sing alto, tenor or bass. The singing seemed to fill the small sanctuary.

It was similar for Kathleen in Niagara Falls, Ontario, where she grew up. The Sunday Evening services in both of our churches featured lots of congregational singing.

It has been said that the early Methodists learned their theology through their hymns. Now these two aging Methodists find our songs and their lyrics bless us today. And we continue to review and deepen our theology in this way.

Take,  for example the following stanza from Charles Wesley’s, theology-rich, O For A Thousand Tongues to Sing:

He breaks the power of canceled sin,

He sets the prisoner free;

His blood can make the foulest clean;

His blood availed for me.

“Canceled sin?” That’s justification. “Prisoner?” Our fallen nature makes us captive to sin. “Sets the prisoner free?”  That’s regeneration by the Holy Spirit. “His blood?” That’s the atoning ground for our salvation. “For me?” The efficacy of the blood of Christ is personally claimed.

In our troubled times we need faith-renewing, soul-nurturing songs playing quietly in our heads often, even much of the time. The world otherwise seems raucous and ridden with conflict.  

To counter this clamor with silent music may take concentrated effort at the start, but Kathleen and I would say cultivating the habit is abundantly worthwhile.

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The Christian Hope: A Counter To Spiritual Anemia?

I know the symptoms of anemia. You feel tired all the time, weak, lacking energy. You are alive, but life is a burden.

The cause of anemia, I’m told, is not enough red blood cells in the bloodstream to carry oxygen throughout the body. Serious lack of energy may be noticed before any other evidence of the deficiency.

Is there a parallel condition we could call spiritual anemia? A person may be a believer but may have limited faith energy and may lack rooted confidence in the hope Christians have of a life everlasting.

The short supply isn’t red blood cells but rather it is Spirit-delivered Christian hope. 

Christian hope means more than wishing for good luck such as: I hope the sun will shine on our family picnic. Instead, it is a “confident expectation,” a certainty, for the future that we cannot presently know or see.

It is founded upon something we do know as believers — that God raised up Christ from the dead and he will raise us up also!

Saint Peter shows us how fundamental this word is when he writes to beleaguered Christians of the dispersion: Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead … (1 Peter 1:3)

Not a theoretical hope, or a fanciful hope, a living hope!

The gospel songwriter, Eliza E. Hewitt caught this certainty of the Christian hope and the energy it plays back into our present circumstances when she wrote:

Let us then be true and faithful,

Trusting, serving every day;

Just one glimpse of Him in glory

Will the toils of life repay.

Paul reminds the Christians in Ephesus that, before their conversion to Christ, they were without God and without hope in the world (Ephesians 2:12). In spite of adequate resources, an abundance of this world’s excitement, and pagan religious affiliations, none of these spoke a sure word of hope about the life to come.

When we are believers but feel spiritually anemic — that is, we are short on the energy the Christian hope provides, and we have only an inner uncertainty about the promise of everlasting life — there is something we can do about it.

We can turn to those Scriptures that reinforce our confidence in the resurrection of our Savior, Jesus Christ, and meditate on our promised resurrection too. These scriptures will stimulate a formation of spiritual red blood cells, so to speak, and restore our energy to love God and serve him in this world.

One such scripture recounts the conversation between Jesus and Mary when she was in the throes of grief from the loss of her brother, Lazarus (John 11:25).

He said to her, I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Then he followed with the question to Mary that all people of faith must be prepared to answer: Do you believe this?

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Good Decisions Don’t Just Happen

Who doesn’t want to make good decisions? After all, our lives are shaped largely by the sum of the decisions we make.

Many of our decisions are routine and without moral significance: What shall I wear to work in the garden today? Then there are the big ones. If a proposal of marriage should come on Valentine’s Day, should I accept? Consequences either way would be long term.

Our grandson, Zach, once told me of a talk he heard on wise decision-making given by a doctor at a meeting of the Christian Medical Fellowship. What impressed him about the talk was the common sense of the doctor’s outline.

He identified two reference points for making life-shaping decisions — “righteousness” and “wisdom.”

Righteousness, the doctor said, equips us with an unshakable standard. The Ten Commandments in the Bible are a base for facing life’s most critical issues, and that standard, we find, is already written into our consciences.

For example, we are to have no other gods but the true God — the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. We are to reverence God’s name; to show honor to our parents; and we are not to steal, or bear false witness. Issues like these are not negotiable.

According to the doctor, a second element is needed in decision making and that is wisdom. This is the application of common sense in accordance with our grasp of the above deeply rooted standard of righteousness.

We apply the two together to the specific decisions we must make. For example, God’s righteousness tells us we are not to walk in the counsel of the ungodly (Psalm 1). In the light of that instruction, wisdom helps us to choose our friends wisely.

Wisdom allows us to maintain our commitments to righteousness while we wrestle with the endless variables of life. In doing so our solid footing does not give way while we tread through the process of deciding.

The doctor’s point that appealed most to Zach was this: when we take righteousness seriously as a fixed point but must make a decision unguided by chapter-and-verse, we can go forward confidently and carefully apply the best wisdom we have.

And when we go ahead, Zach continued, with the best wisdom at our disposal, we are saved from the paralysis of second-guessing ourselves. We remain staunch while we decide.

All of this reflects the wisdom of master decision number one: to follow Christ wholeheartedly. When we stay close to him we stay close to his righteousness and his wisdom.

The Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthian church, It is because of [God] that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God — He is the righteousness of God to us and he is (at the same time) the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:30).

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The Battle of the Christian Heart

On a visit to the Philippines, I spent part of a weekend with Pastor David Yardy in Manila. His was a newly-established church, attended by about 100 mostly young converts, many of whom were professional people.

At a steamy Sunday morning service one young man stood and spoke of his struggle with lust. At first, this seemed unusually candid to me, because during my time as pastor of a college church in the United States, sins like lust were usually confessed in private during times of counseling and prayer.

As the young man in Manila spoke I wondered how the young women present would see him from then on. However, Pastor David responded skillfully. He stood and quietly acknowledged the confession, explaining that this was among the struggles a new Christian would experience in his/her desire to be inwardly pure. He spoke clearly of the way to victory in Christ.

There was a refreshing honesty and deep seriousness about sin in that congregation that day. These Christians had recently come to faith in Christ and there was no impulse to conceal the realities of the old life.

The pastor was well aware that God willed his newborn children to be victorious not only over outward and more public sins such as stealing and lying, but also hidden “heart” sins. Pastor Yardy’s ministry was in accord with what the Apostle Paul wrote to Christians long before: So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature (Galatians 5:16).

In that letter the Apostle Paul identifies eighteen sins of our fallen natures, and they can be divided into four groups.

Sensual sins: immorality (fornication, or sex outside of marriage), uncleanness (inner defilement produced by harboring salacious thoughts), licentiousness (a reckless disregard for public decency).

Religious sins: idolatry (whatever we allow to dominate our affections can create an element of worship, whether of possessions, status or even the world’s values), witchcraft (the use of magic in the calling up of evil spirits for information or advice).

There are interpersonal sins: enmity (hidden feelings of unbrotherliness), strife (inclination to create division or conflict), jealousy (causing rivalry with or even hatred of the fortunate), anger (hurtful rage), selfishness (self-absorption, egocentricity), dissension (open hostility), party spirit (divisiveness, wilful breach of relationships), envy (secret desire to deprive another of what he/she has), murder (hatred which could grow to the taking of another’s life).

And there are vulgar, coarse sins marked by loss of self-control: drunkenness and carousing.

What a cesspool of evil! Sins from this catalogue are often the cause of inner bondage, or at the root of conflict in families or Christian communities and organizations.

Only the enablement of the mighty Spirit of God can help us conquer the sinful nature. And his help is only possible if we are willing to acknowledge the reality of these darker exertions as elements of our fallenness. They cannot be educated out of existence. They cannot be disciplined into good behavior. The Apostle Paul’s remedy is much more radical. 

He writes: Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires (Galatians 5:24). The sinful nature must be put on the cross and by faith and the use of Christian practices kept there. These practices include honest confession of the reality of heart sin, association with healthy-minded Christians, daily Bible reading, prayer, regular communal worship, and pastoral counsel if needed.

As Saint Paul exhorted long ago: live by the Spirit and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature (Galatians 5:16).

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God Knows

I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year,

“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”

And he replied, “Go out into the darkness, and put your hand into the hand of God;

That shall be better to you than light, and safer than a known way.”

May that Almighty hand guide and uphold us all.

Minnie Haskins (1875 – 1957)

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Am I Staying in Spiritual Health?

Every day we get messages from the media about what we must do to be in good health.

We must (1) feed our bodies a proper diet of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and modest portions of carbohydrates; and (2) exercise vigorously for 30 to 60 minutes each day.

There seems to be, in theory at least, a culture-wide consensus on this, so at our house we try to eat healthfully and exercise, though the latter is hard to do “vigorously” at 91 years of age.

But what about spiritual health? After all, we are not only physical creatures. As the Scriptures say, mankind was formed by our Creator from the dust of the earth as were the other animals.

But God also breathed into mankind’s physical bodies the breath of life and “man became a living soul” – spiritual, immortal, deathless.

So, how is that soul to be kept in health? I must (1) nourish it and (2) exercise it daily just as I do for my body.

The food we need is Christian doctrine, which means organized Christian thought. J. I. Packer writes in his book, Knowing God: There can be no spiritual health without good doctrine.

This is in a sense the “food” for the soul and we must therefore regularly seek to nourish our understanding of the Christian faith. We look seriously into the Bible daily.

But, what about spiritual exercise? Along with ingestion of spiritual “food” the exercise side of this formula calls for prayer, service, church attendance — but also for meditation, an easily neglected element in the formula.

Meditation, Packer writes, is the activity of calling to mind, and thinking over, and dwelling on, and applying to oneself the various things that one knows about the works and ways and purposes and promises of God.

Meditation, like pleasant dining, takes time. It’s often suggested that it’s ideal to set apart 30 minutes in the morning for the feeding and exercise of the soul.

If that’s not feasible a lesser time can be set – even as little as 10 minutes — rather than just leaving this spiritual exercise to happen when convenient.

Morning is the best time. Just as the orchestra tunes its instruments before the concert begins, so it is better for us to take time for meditation at the outset of the day, rather than after the day’s concert has been played.

A college student once complained to me that she couldn’t make the early morning hour work because she still felt too groggy from sleep.

She was a very sociable person and I learned she usually took an-hour-and-a-half for lunch. I suggested she cut that time in half and use half for meditation in a quiet corner.

On this matter, as the adapted saying goes, for all of us, “Where there’s a will, there are twenty ways.”

Meditation usually works best when it is used to refocus on God, not on our problems. This can be done helpfully when we set ourselves to reflect on Scripture, such as a portion from the Gospels, a Psalm, The Philippian Letter, etc., holding ours thoughts to the passage.

In our fast-moving culture stopping to meditate may strike us as wasting time. We just want to plunge into the business of whatever we are doing – including even our meditations.

But there’s no getting around it — spiritual health means the daily feeding of soul and body with Christian truth. And it also means the exercising of the soul by taking time to reflect, digest and apply that truth.

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