Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Why Hasn’t Shark Wrestling Killed Elliot Sudal?

Elliot Sudal’s favorite thing to do is wrestle wild sharks. As of a couple months ago, the 24-year-old claims to have caught and released over one hundred of the deadly fish.

The first encounter lasted 45 minutes in the water, finally ending when Sudal dragged the live shark onto the beach. He photographed the animal and then let it go.

Each time, he says, the scariest moment comes when he first jumps in the water and grabs the shark with his hands. Because there’s a lot of thrashing about, it’s hard to tell what is what, and the shark’s mouth could easily find its way to his body.

Why hasn’t he been bitten yet? Sure, Sudal is a strong guy, but there has to be more to it than that. Sudal has his own theory, but think of what your answer is first. What would be the most logical explanation for why a young man who has wrestled with over a hundred hungry sharks hasn’t been killed—or even bitten?

Have your answer? Don’t keep reading until you do. Here’s Sudal’s summary, given in a National Geographic article:

“They [sharks] can cut a fish in half no problem, so think what they could do to a leg,” he said. “But knock on wood, I haven’t had any problems yet.”

“Knock on wood.” Pure luck. That’s why he’s still in one piece. Honestly, it’s an answer that makes sense. How else do you explain it?

Believe it or not, there’s a better answer. It’s seen more clearly in another true story of a man who walked away from several deadly wrestling matches with wild animals. Listen to how he explained his experiences:

“Your servant used to keep his father’s sheep, and when a lion or a bear came and took a lamb out of the flock, I went out after it and struck it, and delivered the lamb from its mouth; and when it arose against me, I caught it by its beard, and struck and killed it. Your servant has killed both lion and bear” (1 Sam. 17:34-36).

Based on David’s description, it almost sounds as if he had killed several wild animals in the past. Unlike Sudal, he probably had some weapons at his disposal. But look at how he interprets the events: “The LORD…delivered me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear” (v. 37).

“The Lord delivered me.” David wasn’t just lucky. He did the physical fighting, yes. But he was aware that, unless the Lord fights for us, we fight in vain. Ultimately, it was God who rescued him from the threat of death.

Was David’s answer the same as your answer for Sudal? It’s not how I typically think when hearing about narrow escapes. I too easily forget God in the miraculous events in life—to say nothing of the daily grind. (It’s a common temptation in affluent societies; see Deuteronomy 8:11-17.)

That’s why I’m thankful for David’s example, and for countless other stories in the Old Testament. They repeatedly give us a glimpse behind the curtain to see just how much God is at work in the world.

Our stance, I think, is often to view our situations through the dirty lens of luck. “Man, you really dodged the bullet there.” “Wow, I narrowly missed that one.” “Just think—one more inch and that would have ended poorly.” “Can you believe how close I came to ending my life?” We acknowledge the miraculous all the time—albeit, without actually acknowledge their miraculous nature.

Here’s the application: Scripture tells us that every good thing comes from God (Jas. 1:17). If you experience any blessing, it is ultimately from His hand. That includes the time when
  • You almost got into a car wreck but didn’t.
  • You had given up your purse for lost, but then it was returned to you.
  • You heard good news from the doctor when you were expecting bad news.
  • You received an answer to prayer.
And the list could go on and on. Whenever you experience mercy (avoiding something bad that should happen) or grace (receiving something good that shouldn’t happen), you are receiving a gift from the Lord. Only God is truly good (Luke 18:19), and he is more accomplished at giving good gifts than anyone else (Luke 11:11-13).

So let’s pray that we can cultivate a habit of pointing the finger back to God when we are blessed. It will more closely align our thinking with reality—and it will encourage us to experience more thankfulness in our hearts.

photo credit: martins.nunomiguel via photopin cc

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Treating Fellow Christians Like Enemies

Over the years, I’ve noticed one curious and nearly universal characteristic of movie villains: they have no qualms about turning on each other. Whenever it’s convenient or expedient, bad guys will treat their own friends like enemies. From Captain Barbossa to the Joker, they seem to have unswerving loyalty only to themselves. Villains don’t mind leaving a pile of dead bodies in their wake as long as they get what they want.

Sadly, when it comes to the topic of confronting sin in the lives of others, we in the church can be nearly as hurtful. I’m painfully aware of the temptation to turn correction into an exercise in harsh, prideful berating—i.e., “do you see how bad/stupid/idiotic you are being?”

When I see someone else sinning in a way I don’t (or sinning similarly but in a “worse” way than me), I often imagine a vast chasm between the two of us, as if I were somehow superior. My goal in pointing out the sins and weaknesses of others can easily be to prove someone wrong, or to prove myself right—or both. In these cases, self-exaltation is the name of the game.

If the apostle Paul ever had reason to exalt himself while correcting others, that reason would be spelled “Corinth.” Of all his spiritual children, the Corinthians seemed especially immature, worldly, and arrogant. But in reading his first letter to them, we see that his goal in writing is “to admonish [them] as [his] beloved children” (1 Cor. 4:14, ESV). In spite of their abundant abuse of doctrine and practice, Paul does not treat them impersonally or distastefully, but as cherished family members.

When he warns them about the seriousness of their idolatry, he once again refers to them as “my beloved” (10:14). In a letter that is largely corrective, and just after a section with some vivid warnings, Paul doesn’t become heated and agitated for the purpose of communicating displeasure or haughtiness. Rather, he still refers to the Corinthians with tender words. Even in correcting serious sin, he never seeks to tear others down. Instead, his desire is to build up—to exhort his brothers and sisters in Christ to flee from their sins.

It seems to be a habit with Paul: correcting others with sincere love and compassion. “Therefore watch, and remember that for three years I did not cease to warn everyone night and day with tears” (Acts 20:31). He responds to others’ sin, not with fits of rage, but with tears of sadness.

Christian brothers and sisters are not inferiors to be scoffed at, but fellow heirs to be loved and cherished. Christ purchased them with His blood; why should I define them for what they are apart from Him? Is that how I want others to treat me? Is that how God Himself—my superior in every conceivable way—treats me?

I don’t want to keep being like the villains I see in the movies. I don’t want to treat friends and family as enemies when they mess up. As Paul says in 2 Thessalonians 3:14-15, “And if anyone does not obey our word in this epistle, note that person and do not keep company with him, that he may be ashamed. Yet do not count him as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother.” Warnings, and sometimes even severe corrections, may be in order, but I’m never supposed to dispatch others with unfriendly fire.

Paul’s example gives me hope. He once despised the church of Christ. In fact, he persecuted believers out of abundant hatred. He approved of Stephen’s stoning and he dragged families apart in an attempt to rid the world of the Christian “perversion” of the Jewish religion. And yet he became one of the early church’s founding fathers. If there is hope for him to change from deep and abiding hatred to deep and abiding love, there is hope that God can and will bring the same change in my heart—and in yours as well.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Surprising Solution to Feeling Distant from God

We’ve all been there—at that place where we feel like God is far away. For whatever reason, our relationship with the Lord seems strained, cold, even severed. We know we need spiritual refreshment, but we’re blocked by a wall that seems too high to cross and too wide to get around.

During a time when I was aware of my own distance from God, the Holy Spirit spoke to me through Hebrews 4:16: “Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”

I realized that there are two main reasons why Christians don’t approach God: guilt and apathy. Ironically, these are the two reasons why God says we should approach Him. Hebrews 4:16 speaks directly to both our sinfulness and our shortcomings.

Problem #1: Guilt

Nothing deadens our affection for God like lingering guilt. Because we’re sinners, we do—and should—sense the reality that we have missed the mark and failed to glorify God as we ought. The problem comes when we respond to the guilt improperly.

Often, we think our sin is too great to be forgiven. Or maybe it’s a habitual sin that we feel guilty for having to confess for the umpteenth time. Whatever the case, it’s easy to think we can’t approach God because our performance isn’t up to par.

Suddenly, we’re doing what we tell unbelievers to not do: clean themselves up before getting right with God. Ignoring our own advice, we wait on the outskirts of God’s presence, wondering how we can make ourselves worthy to approach Him again.

Solution to Guilt: Mercy

We can approach God’s throne boldly, even in our sin, because it is there where we find forgiveness. The mercy of God speaks comfort to a soul burdened by the weight of its guilt. Though our sins have tarnished our reputation beyond human repair, God has cast our sins as far as East is from West (Ps. 103:12). We may obtain mercy, not by earning it, but by receiving it freely. If God did not spare His Son on our behalf, how could He not freely bestow the mercy Christ’s sacrifice secured (Rom. 8:32)?

Problem #2: Apathy

No one feels constantly on fire for God. We all experience spells of spiritual numbness. We lack an inclination to pursue God through prayer and Bible study. We know that God is great and glorious, but we just don’t desire to fellowship with Him.

Apathy toward God is concerning. Even when we’re strongly aware of our lack of desire for God, we often don’t care about our apathy. If anything, our awareness leads to a heightened sense Problem #1: guilt. It’s hard to seek God when you don’t even want to.

Solution to Apathy: Grace

We can approach God’s throne boldly because it is there where we find grace to help increase our affections for the Savior. God knows we can’t conjure up feelings for Him on our own. When we face a “time of need” for spiritual fervor, His grace is the very source of that fervor: “for it is God who works in you both to will [desire] and to do [ability] for His good pleasure” (Philip. 2:13). His grace gives us the power to desire and delight in Him.

So, let’s not let guilt or apathy keep us from the only one who can successfully deal with both. With mercy and grace flowing toward us from our Father’s throne, let us press in to know Him. He promises to pardon our sin and give us the help we need.

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

When Is Public Indecency Acceptable?

During a recent plane ride across the country, I looked up from my seat and encountered two people pretending to have sex—right out in the open. They didn’t act in the least bit ashamed or embarrassed. They weren’t completely naked, but discarded pieces of clothing were clearly visible.

A quick glance around the cabin revealed that some of the other passengers had seen the incident as well, but none of them were reacting to it. Some continued their business, while others seemed content to watch passively. No flight attendants intervened; no one protested. It was a surreal experience—one which provided me with an opportunity to apply God’s grace in fighting the temptation to lust in my own heart.

What happened after that? Well, the bedroom episode ended and the movie went on to another scene. Yes, it was “only” a movie. But does that relieve you at all? If so, something is dreadfully wrong.

There seems to be a huge disconnect between what is inappropriate in “real life” and what is inappropriate in front of a camera. We have laws against public indecency. But the same indecency, if put on film—where thousands or millions more might see, and which can be paused or replayed at any time—is suddenly socially acceptable.

You’re probably aware of the debauchery-infused performance of Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke at the Video Music Awards last week. It seems that most people, Christian and otherwise, agree on the impropriety of this VMA dance number. But my guess is that if that same dance routine was a scene in a movie, no one would have responded with such outrage. In fact, many Christians would likely have gone to see the movie—as long as it had some “redeemable” content, that is.

In my post Sex, Lies, and Star Trek, I talked about some of the ways in which the Christian community has become lax in its entertainment standards. We have grown accustomed to cultural expressions of sexuality that Scripture explicitly forbids—namely, nudity (full or partial) and sex scenes.

Probably the main objection I received to the article was the “it’s not as bad as…” rationale. Comparisons were repeatedly made to something that was either worse or similar but socially acceptable. The undressing scene in Star Trek Into Darkness, it was argued, was short—barely worth mentioning. And after all, it was no worse than what a man might see on the beach; her underwear was basically the same thing as a bikini.

It’s hard for me to see a Biblical defense for the line of reasoning above. First, the shortness of the scene makes little difference. It existed for the sole purpose of sexually objectifying actress Alice Eve. If you don’t believe me (or Star Trek producer Damon Lindelof), consider this: the Facebook ad that appeared in my news feed when the movie first came out exclaimed “Star Trek is Back” (or something similar), accompanied by a photo of Alice in her underwear.

Surely this is a mistake, I thought. They accidentally combined a Star Trek ad with a lingerie ad.

But I soon realized, to my dismay, that it was actually a freeze frame from the movie itself. Now, film runs at 24 frames a second. At 132 minutes, the movie contains over 190,000 frames. Out of all those frames, marketers chose Alice Eve in her underwear to advertise the movie. It may have been a “short” or “mild” scene compared to others, but sexual exploitation is sexual exploitation.

Regarding the argument that some underwear is similar to (or covers more than) a bikini: would it be acceptable for a woman to walk around on the beach in her underwear? I’d guess most Christian men would say no—that a woman in her underwear in public is indecent. Or, I suppose it could be argued that underwear is different from a bikini because underwear was designed to be covered by other clothes. But that eliminates the excuse that underwear and bikinis are basically the same thing. Whatever the case, the “underwear = bikinis” argument is problematic at best.

I’m aware that rules for modesty vary among different cultures. As C. S. Lewis points out in Mere Christianity, “A girl in the Pacific islands wearing hardly any clothes and a Victorian lady completely covered in clothes might both be equally ‘modest,’ proper, or decent, according to the standards of their own societies: and both, for all we could tell by their dress, might be equally chaste (or equally unchaste).” Still, most uses of bikinis in our Western entertainment culture are strictly for titillation. (There’s a reason why the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition traditionally sells 10-15 times as much as a regular issue.)

Several of my readers pointed out that some men can legitimately go to the beach while successfully remaining pure. Standards for guarding one man’s eyes will likely and legitimately differ from those of another. I never meant to imply otherwise. (If you want to explore the topic of bikinis further, I recommend this presentation by Jessica Rey and this article by Rachel Held Evans.)

As I pointed out in my earlier blog post, though, personal holiness is only part of the issue. Loving others is an essential component. It isn’t inherently loving to financially support women being objectified—not even if we could avoid temptation in the process. We have more than ourselves to think about. We are, to a certain extent, our brother’s—and sister’s—keeper. The good of our neighbor should be a primary concern in our entertainment choices (and it is a topic we will explore more in the future).

So, when is public indecency acceptable? The short answer is, it shouldn’t be acceptable—especially not by those of us who have been rescued from the dominion of our sins (sexual and otherwise) and transferred to the kingdom of God (Col. 1:13). We must not condone watching through a camera lens that which Scripture forbids us to watch with our own eyes.