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When does patriotism become idolatry?

The Church in America is at a crossroads. In this cultural moment of instability and polarization, many have turned to a new kind of Christian Nationalism as the answer. I’ve seen a shift among some, from a grateful and healthy patriotism, to a nationalistic idolatry. Christian Nationalism threatens the Church, the witness of believers, and the advancement of the Gospel. It is important to recognize that many politicians have taken on the name of Christ and co-opted the Church for political purposes. Non-Christians attach the beliefs and actions of these leaders to the broader Christian witness. This, of course, is not new, but it has revealed an underlying syncretism of faith and politics that threatens the clarity of the Gospel. This syncretism is the result of a fear-based response to a growing sense that the Church is losing ground in the culture wars. Lacking faith that Christ and His Church can stand alone, many have Christian leaders have co-opted government to accomplish a “kingdom” agenda. The dearth of moral leadership in the public sphere and a polarizing president have magnified the tension and division among Americans. Regardless of what side you fall on- and most tend to fall heavily on one side or the other- we all know these are challenging days in America. We are as divided as I’ve seen in my lifetime. So, as we celebrate the 4th of July (more explicitly, our freedom and those who have made it possible), it is important that we do so thoughtfully, intentionally, and from a biblical perspective.

Once upon a time, “Jesus is Lord”, was a political statement. So political, in fact, and such an affront to the Empire and the Emperor who sat on the throne, it led to capital punishment. The Roman government had declared you could not worship two masters; it was Caesar and no one else. As a result, early believers (our ancient brothers and sisters) were martyred for their faith in Christ. It was not the declaration that, “Jesus is Savior” that shook the Empire but that, “Jesus is LORD”. This confession of faith flew in the face of the State because it meant that Christ alone is the King, the Ruler, the One with all power and dominion, and that there is no other. Allegiance is to Him alone.

If Christ is Lord of our lives, we are devoted to Him above all else – above our nationality, race, ideology, ethnicity, political leader, or party. Most Christians know the difference and seek Christ above all else, but we all wrestle with idolatry, more than we know. Calvin noted that, “The human heart is an idol factory”. Idolatry is most often making good things God things – even God-given things – and trusting in these things more than God. Idolatry can include comfort, security, wealth, success, power, and approval. It can include our spouses, families, jobs; even religion or doctrine can become an idol. Most Christians commit idolatry without knowing it. I’ve learned that idolatry is so insidious and subtle in my life, that it requires a humble and thoughtful scrutiny. It’s been helpful for me to understand that my deepest emotions point me to my idols. What makes me anxious? What makes me angry, nervous, extremely happy or sad? Something has become an idol if the thought of losing it would make me question if life is worth living. Something has become an idol when I think that in it or through it I find meaning, happiness, and worth.

Let me be clear that patriotism is not idolatry. A grateful and passionate patriotism is a proper response to the blessings that come from living in our country. Not everyone can celebrate their country, their founding fathers, and those who have given their lives for the freedoms we enjoy in America and often take for granted. But patriotism can become idolatry.

When does patriotism become idolatry?

  1. Christians practice idolatry when they believe that a political leader will bring the social change necessary, more than Christ.

At first glance, this seems absurd, but for many, their functional savior is a political leader or party, and not the Lord Jesus Christ. I know this because some are more passionate about politics than they are about Jesus. They read more, think more deeply about, and study politics far more than they study their Bible or pursue theology. I know this because many watch political news more than they read their Bible and they engage in political conversations (most often with others who agree with their disparagement of certain opposing political positions) than they engage in spiritual conversations with others about Jesus. I know this because of the fear, anxiety, and anger I see on social media platforms. I see Christians who are more passionate about defending a political view or partisan position than they are about defending the Gospel and the truth of Christ. I know this because I see Christians who support and defend a candidate or leader carte blanche, even when it is clear that he/she is speaking or acting in ways that are clearly not the Way of Jesus. All leaders are flawed and surely no one person or party is right on every political matter.

I can’t imagine Paul wringing his hands, anxiously praying for the Father to place a certain Emperor on the throne in Rome so that the Gospel could finally advance in the Empire. Paul and the early followers of Jesus did not rely on a political leader or the State for any power or authority to advance the Gospel. They knew who their Leader was and they were operating out of all the power and authority they needed, given to them by Christ, through the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit. Can you imagine Jesus endorsing a certain candidate in our day, with the expressed position that through him/her the kingdom agenda would finally become a reality? Praise God we live in a free democracy and that our leader is not a totalitarian dictator (as in Paul’s day). We need to remember that our national leader is just a president who has 1/10th of the power of any totalitarian dictator. Regardless of your political persuasion we can all praise God for the genius of the “American Experiment”, with our Constitution and our three branches of government with its checks and balances. Let us be thankful for our democracy.

  1. Christians become idolatrous when they believe in the ability of the State to affect change, more than the Church.

Christians practice idolatry when their focus for change is on what the State can do more than on what can be accomplished in and through the local church. Many believe the State will bring necessary change, instead of embodying that change and living out the Gospel in every domain of culture. When one’s energies are spent electing one candidate up against another more than on the ministries at his/her church, which can bring about effective and lasting change locally, it has become idolatrous. Patriotism can be idolatrous when our hope is in the State and when our “agent” of change is the government, or an election or specific candidate or party.

I know that some trust in the State more than Christ because I see those who claim to have been transformed by His love, but do not love others as He has loved us. These days we are quick to label, categorize, and demonize people (and those who agree with them), so that thoughtful dialogue and civil discourse becomes impossible. If you categorize and tag people, calling them names or placing labels on them, it dismisses them from having a thoughtful perspective. And it dismisses you from thoughtfully and respectfully listening to them. This lack of engagement will never lead toward empathy and understanding. This is the lost art of American politics. For the Christian, the hope of the world is Jesus Christ and His Spirit alive and active, embodied in the Church, as the People of Jesus live out their faith.

  1. Christians become idolatrous when they spend more time and energy on political matters than on a pursuit of Christ and the making of disciples.

An obsession with politics may reveal a misguided focus for the believer. This is not to say that we do not need Christ-centered politicians and Spirit-led leaders in government. Surely we do, as in every cultural domain. But when we find that our time spent serving in and through our local church, is less than the time spent reading about, and watching news about the State, elections, parties, or working for political change, we’re out of balance.

But can’t we be both patriotic and politically informed and involved? Certainly we can, and that is not my concern here. My concern is that too many Christians spend too much of their God-ordained time and precious energy supporting partisan politics, believing that they are furthering justice and advancing the Gospel – thus revealing a syncretism at best and idolatry at worst. We advance the Gospel by advancing the Gospel. It is Good News that needs to be shared. In the end, people don’t care about our opinions. They care about our love. What they need is Christ-like love, empowered by His Spirit within us. Our opinions don’t change lives but our love does. His love does. No one is argued into the kingdom.

When it comes to seeing real change in our culture, where do I focus my energies? Is it engaging my neighbor or ranting on social media? Who or what do I think is the real agent of change? What do my anxious thoughts and actions reveal about where my allegiance lies? Jesus said that whatever we value most is where our thoughts and actions will run. So, I urge us all to take a hard look our lives and where our minds and hearts are going. And then celebrate with unbridled joy the God-given privilege of living in America, where we are free to worship Christ above all else and share His Gospel unhindered.

What is Prayer?

One day (in Luke 11) Jesus’ disciples came to Him and asked Him a question. These were, essentially, Jewish boys who had grown up learning the Torah, reciting the Shema, and all their lives they had been taught to pray certain prayers, specifically three times a day. On this day, they heard Jesus pray and simply hearing Him pray prompted them to then ask the question: “Can you teach us how to do that!?” Clearly He was praying in a way that they were not. What they heard from Him was something new, something different. This is significant- as they followed Jesus every day, they saw something in His life- and they knew it was driven by prayer. They heard Him pray to a God that He called “Father”- with such intimacy, such humility, such confidence and power- that they asked Him to teach them how to pray just like that.

Maybe you’ve never asked Jesus to teach you how to pray. Maybe you have never asked anyone to teach you how to pray. How do we learn how to pray? We learn from others around us and, primarily, we have learned to pray (or not pray) from our parents.

Read Matthew 6:5-13 What is it that keeps us from praying as we should? We don’t feel that we need to pray, we feel that we should pray. Is it a lack of knowledge or we don’t know how to pray? Is it a lack of faith- or belief – that God actually answers prayer- that prayer really does change things? I think that’s the problem for many of us. Have we become so distracted by technology- focused on our televisions, our smart phones, tablets, and computers that we can’t even focus enough to get quiet before the Lord? I think for some that is the case. Years ago I was challenged as a young minister, from a pastor who said, “the one thing you must do is this: You must ruthlessly eliminate noise/hurry from your life- spend time daily, with God in prayer.”

What is prayer?

Jesus said that God knows what we need before we ask (Matthew 6:8). So this begs a huge question, doesn’t it? Why pray at all? If you have come to the point where you’re asking that question, then you are on the verge of a great breakthrough in your life regarding prayer! Perhaps after all, prayer is not first and foremost about asking God for things. For many of us, prayer has been one big adventure in missing the point. What if prayer has little to do with me and is actually all about God? This is what Jesus taught us.

Prayer is communion with God, adoring Him for who He is and imploring Him for what He gives.

Prayer is paying attention to God- to Who He is, what He’s done, and what He wants to do through me. Now, we’ve intentionally chosen words here that we don’t use- powerful words that get to the heart of prayer:

  • Adore – to love, honor, and respect (someone) deeply; to worship, venerate; to take great pleasure in (something or someone).
  • Implore – to ask or beg for (something) in a very serious or emotional way; to beg someone earnestly or desperately to do something. 

Jesus says, when you come before God, don’t forget you come before a loving Father. “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know Him.” 1 John 3:1

Prayer is communion with God, adoring Him for who He is. The first part of The Lord’s prayer is all about adoring Him for who He is. Like everything else in life, it’s all about God’s glory.

Three petitions

  • His name – the name (in Hebrew) encompasses the complete person. “Hallowed”- HOLY, treated with the highest honor. He’s set apart. Do you struggle to adore God? Then meditate on Jesus- who HE is and all that He has done for you.

“He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of His nature, and He upholds the universe by the word of His power. After making purification for sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.” Hebrews 1:3

  • His kingdom The presence of God’s kingdom refers to the reign of Christ in our hearts and lives as believers, and to the reigning presence of Christ in His Body, the Church. Disciples who follow Jesus every day, will increasingly reflect Christ’s love, obey His commands, honor Him and proclaim the Gospel- the Good News of the kingdom. Part of adoring Him for who He is leads us to cry out for Him to come reign on earth as He does in heaven. This is in line with the promise in John 15 to give us whatever we ask in the context of spiritual fruit.

“If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.” John 15:7-8 As you Adore God for His glory, ask, plead, implore Him to bring His kingdom to His church, in His city and in His world. Ask in the name of Jesus for Him to bear fruit through you- advancing His kingdom on earth.

  • His will You know how to get what you’re praying for? You determine what

God’s will is and then you ask for it! This is why the WORD of God is so important. This is why the community of faith is so important. If you pray “in His name”, according to His name, His character, His person- your prayers will be answered 100% of the time. This is why Oswald Chambers, wrote: “To say that, ‘prayer changes things’ is not as close to the truth as saying, ‘Prayer changes me…” and then, by His power He changes things thought me. Prayer changes the way you look at things, approach things, desire things. David Platt said, “It is true that the purposes of God are unchanging. It is also true that the plan of God is unfolding.” And He’s chosen us to accomplish His plans.

“You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, He may give it to you.” John 15:16

Think about how revolutionary Jesus’ teaching is here: If you first approach prayer with your mind and heart set on WHO God is, spend some time adoring Him, praising Him for the fact that He is hallowed, holy, He is God. Adore Him – now implore Him. You see how that changes everything? You’re now going to pray in accordance with His character and His will, “in His name”. This unlocks the power of extraordinary prayer – prayer as it is meant to be. Prayer as Jesus, our Savior, has taught us.

A Holy Separation Anxiety

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Matthew 27:46

We call it “Good Friday”. But like everything else on the day of His death, it was good for us, but terrible for our Lord Jesus. As you go about your day today, consider these facts: Early on that Friday morning, after no sleep the night before, Jesus was taken to Pilate’s prison. He was beaten by professional torturers who knew their craft all too well. He was then presented to the crowd who chose a notorious prisoner over the very Son of God. Throughout the night Jesus was silent, ironically, directing the entire process that led to His death. He was taken into the courtyard (called the Praetorium) and the entire company of soldiers surrounded Him. They stripped Him, put a crown of thorns on His head, a staff in His hand, and knelt down before Him in mockery. They spat on Him and blind-folded Him, punching Him many times, as hard as they could. Later that morning, exhausted and famished, He carried His own cross, most of the way to Golgotha. At 9:00 am, the executioners impaled Him through His wrists and His feet, with long spikes, and fastened Him to the cross. Darkness came over the earth from noon until 3:00 pm.

At 3:00 pm, in anguish, Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” In that moment, Jesus was experiencing the wrath of the Father (His holy reaction to sin), as He “became sin for us” (2 Corinthians 5:21). He was abandoned by the Father, so that you and I would never be. Then Jesus cried out, “It is finished!”, and He died. At this final cry of victory, God’s inflexible holiness and His unconditional love collided as our redemption was made possible. Around 5:00 pm the women came to prepare His body for burial and at 6:00 pm they placed Him in the tomb. A massive stone was rolled into place as the sun set on the saddest day in history. And the angels were silent as all creation watched to see what would happen next.

As you go throughout this day, be in a constant state of remembrance, meditating on what happened to our Lord Jesus. Think about each event as if it was happening today. Consider the horrific emotional strain Jesus faced, knowing He was about to endure a slow, painful death, and greater still, the anticipation of the very wrath of God upon sin that would come upon Him. And remember, He did all of this for you and me. Remember also that it’s Friday, the saddest day in history, but Sunday’s coming. Praise Him.

Pray:  Lord, today I will walk with You through Your sufferings. I will meditate on every phase of Your sacrifice for me and give thanks to You/ My heart breaks over my sin that put You on the cross. May I always remember what You have accomplished for me. And may Your love for me lead me to love You, to obey You, and bring glory to You Name.

The Life of a Servant

Thursday night before His death

“After that, He poured water into a basin and began to wash His disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around Him.”  John 13:5

On the night before His death, Jesus would teach one of the greatest lessons of His ministry to His disciples. The Master-Teacher would use object lessons, symbols, and hands-on teaching to make His point. The first lesson was on servanthood; the second was on sacrifice. The first involved the washing of His disciples’ dirty feet – an act performed only by a servant, not a master. When He finished, He didn’t say, “Now that I’ve washed your feet, you wash mine”, (as we would have done). Instead He said, “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you wash one another’s feet” (John 13:14). You see, the way we express love to Jesus is by expressing love to one another. The way we serve Him is by serving others.

The second lesson was around the table as He took the well-known elements of the Passover Meal and re-interpreted them as fulfilled by Him. The matzo bread – the “bread of affliction” – (which was always pierced and always striped), represented His body. The cup of redemption represented His blood shed for them. How unusual it must have been as Jesus brought new meaning to these ancient symbols; how amazing it must have been after His death and resurrection to understand with crystal clarity what He meant. And now we know as well.

“The Master will dress himself to serve and tell the servants to sit at the table, and He will serve them.”  Luke 12:37

Pray:  Lord, thank You for Your amazing act of servanthood and Your example of sacrifice for me. I want to live the life of a servant. I will love someone for free today and, in so doing, I will be expressing my love to You. Tonight, as I lay down my head for a night of peaceful sleep, I will remember the sleepless night You had as You were arrested, tried, and beaten on my behalf. Thank you, for the soulful rest you bring because of the peace you have brought to those who trust in You.

Jesus, the Incomparable Substitute

As Gautama Buddha, the founder of Buddhism was dying, his devoted followers asked how they should keep his memory alive, propagate his greatness. He said, “Don’t bother. Tell them not to remember me, but adhere to my teachings. They can forget me, but let my teachings be propagated around the world.” This sounds like a very self-less, humble response. But Jesus would have never said anything like this. If He had it would validate what many people think: that Jesus was yet another religious leader whose primary message was, “work harder, get better”. It would confirm what a lot of Christians seem to believe today – that Jesus came to initiate a new and improved behavior modification project. As if Jesus came to help us get better. Clearly Jesus taught us much, but think about it, what was at the heart of His teaching?

The central focus of Jesus’ teaching was His identity, who He was and is. He would have never said, “Forget me, just follow my teachings.” He said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” It may sound self-evident but at the heart of the Christian faith is Christ Himself, Who He is and what He has done. So, it’s paramount that we get our Christology right (who He is) above all else and then put everything else at it’s service. Here’s why:  Your view of Christ determines your response to Him. The Person of Jesus – His character, His identity, and the essence of His nature is clearly revealed in the Gospel accounts and is brought into undeniable focus and clarity the final week of His life.

Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem begins with a counter-procession, presenting a contrary way, a rival king, a contrasting social order, and an opposing theology, ushering in an alternative kingdom – the kingdom of God.

Jesus said His kingdom is “not of this world,” and it contrasts the kingdom of the world in every possible way. This is not a simple contrast between good and evil, but rather two fundamentally different ways of doing life, two fundamentally different belief systems- two fundamentally different loyalties. This King is ushering in a different kind of kingdom and it’s embodied in the King Himself.

This is why the angry pursuit of the religious leaders ramped up the final week of His life. In the end, He was not crucified because He talked about loving others or caring for the poor. He was crucified because of who He claimed to be. In the end, He lived the perfect life for us, suffered and died, taking on our shame and punishment, and He rose again, conquering death and hell- this is the Gospel, the Good News that has rescued us from death and hell. He is the King we worship, the One we proclaim, and the One we follow every day.

This Holy Week, let’s tell others who Jesus really is. Tell them He is not another good example, but our incomparable Substitute.