Douglas High School Shooting, Evil, and God

I was asked just this week my thoughts on the heinous act of evil perpetrated at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Where was God in the midst of such evil? That question has been asked time and again over the ages. Recent events return our attention to the problem of evil. The problem of evil itself is relatively simple to state, but has been profoundly difficult to answer. David Hume, following Epicurus, suggested that if God was not able to destroy evil, then he was impotent; that if God was not willing to destroy evil, then he was malevolent; and that if he was both able and willing, then why was there evil? Succinctly, Hume displayed the three main tenets that form the problem of evil: (1) God’s omnipotence, (2) God’s goodness and (3) the reality of evil. The problem of evil is an important question for the Christian worldview, but every worldview must provide an answer.

I freely admit that answering the problem of evil is difficult. We are forced to live with the tension between what the Bible teaches—God’s omnipotence and goodness—and the evil we see and experience. The Bible simply does not answer the question, “Why evil?” But it does provide an explanation for evil. In Genesis 3, we discover that God provided Adam and Eve moral choice. They were not robots or automatons. Rather, they were free beings who had a choice. They chose poorly. They sinned. And as a result, evil and suffering entered the world. Sin, evil, and suffering evidently play a role in the sovereign plan of God. Sin and evil reflect the reality of man’s moral choices. Sin, evil and suffering also reveal the vast depth, wonder and glory of God’s gracious love. Not only does God love man in spite of our sin, but God sent his Son to suffer because of our sin. God shows his love and grace through the passion and suffering of Christ that we may experience God’s forgiveness and goodness.

These tensions are real. Regardless of our biblical beliefs and Christian worldview, we must still cope with acts of murder, abuse and heinous evil. We ask, “What would possess Nikolas Cruz to murder so many people?” We could ask this same question of all the school shooters or acts of mass violence in recent memory. We could ask the same question concerning acts of abuse, war crimes, the Nazi killing machine or any number of other historical events of villainy. Even answers that reflect satanic evil and the sinful human heart seem somehow insufficient.

Maybe we could ask a different question, “What would possess assistant coach and security guard at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Aaron Feis, to shield students with his body to protect them? Why do we consider his sacrifice heroic?” It is clear that we as humans identify with acts of heroic sacrifice. Feis’ ultimate sacrifice was not some act of altruism, but it was genuinely good. If we are going to ask the question “Why evil?” we must also ask the question, “Why good?” Feis’ sacrifice, along with the sacrifice of other teachers at the school, touches us deeply. Could it be that their sacrifice is somehow representative of a greater sacrifice?

While the Christian worldview may not possess a complete answer for the problem of evil, it does provide something to give humanity hope. Prior to man’s fall into sin, God created mankind in his image. During the 6 days of creation, God called all that he saw, “Good.” His purpose in creation is good. Paul connected these themes in Romans 8 when he wrote,

“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the create was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” – Romans 8:18-21

In other words, the evil we see and experience today is not ultimate. The Bible declares to us there is hope. Jesus came because of our sin to redeem us from our evil. And ultimately evil will be defeated and the goodness of God through Christ will reign forever. Even if all our questions are not answered today, we do not have to remain hopeless. Look to Christ who defeated evil on the cross. There is coming a day when evil will forever be vanquished and the glory and goodness of God will rule.

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The Global Gospel and Racism

The history of racism and prejudice in our country is a stain upon the freedoms espoused in the Declaration of Independence “all men are created equal” and the Bill of Rights. In truth one of the great ironies is that a nation founded upon freedom would continue to enslave a people based on skin color. Leaving slavery as an institution was a failure of our nation’s founders. Their inability or the inability of the context to move them to act would result in a great Civil War where hundreds of thousands of Americans would die over the controversial issues of state’s rights and slavery. President Abraham Lincoln rightly understood that slavery was the central instigating factor of the Civil War even if it was not the stated cause. With his emancipation proclamation, Americans can be proud that the first vestiges of slavery were slashed out of our country. But it would be a century more before equality was granted. Rampant prejudice and racism permeated our nation. Not until the Civil Right’s movement of the 1960s did justice and equality come to the South and to the nation. Even today, more than 50 years after the Civil Right’s movement, we still deal with prejudice and incipient racism. It is not something that God tolerates and certainly not present in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The gospel of Jesus Christ is a global gospel. In Acts 1:8 Jesus said that the gospel would go to the ends of the world. In Acts 10, the church experienced the first Gentile convert–Cornelius. God is not a respecter of persons. Heritage and color of skin are not factors in God’s great act of love upon the cross. Jesus came to die for the entire human race—all colors, peoples, languages, and nationalities. In Acts 10, we see the incipient racism of the Jewish people blown up by the glorious grace of a sovereign God through the universal message of the gospel of Jesus Christ. I trust that we will not only witness the love of God in Acts 10, but the expected response to the gospel that we as its bearers must share to ALL who bear the image of God.

Peter’s vision in Acts 10 related to unclean foods. The Jewish people had received dietary laws from God as a means of spiritual distinction. But here in Acts, Peter saw unclean foods and was told to eat. Following Peter’s vision, Cornelius’ messengers reached Peter and brought Peter to preach to Cornelius, his family, and his friends. These first Gentiles would believe the gospel and receive the Holy Spirit. But what did the food have to do with the Gentiles receiving the gospel? Actually, the vision of food was very important.

John MacArthur observed:

Strict Jews would have nothing to do with Gentiles. They would not be guests in Gentile homes (cf. v. 28) or invite Gentiles to their homes. Dirt from a Gentile country was considered defiled, and a Jew would shake it off his sandals before entering Israel (from which practice the expression ‘shake the dust off’ [Matt. 10:14; Mark 6:11; Luke 9:5; Acts 13:51] came). Jews would not eat food prepared by Gentile hands. Cooking utensils purchased from a Gentile had to be purified before being used. In short, Gentiles were considered unclean and their presence defiling (MacArthur, Acts, 291).

J.B. Polhill argued:

The Jewish food laws presented a real problem for Jewish Christians in the outreach to the Gentiles. One simply could not dine in a Gentile’s home without inevitably transgressing those laws either by the consumption of unclean flesh or of flesh that had not been prepared in a kosher, i.e., ritually proper, fashion (cf. Acts 15:20). Jesus dealt with the problem of clean and unclean, insisting that external things like foods did not defile a person but the internals of heart and speech and thought render one truly unclean (Mark 7:14–23). In Mark 7:19b Mark added the parenthetical comment that Jesus’ saying ultimately declared all foods clean. This was precisely the point of Peter’s vision: God declared the unclean to be clean. In Mark 7 Jesus’ teaching on clean/unclean was immediately followed by his ministry to a Gentile woman (7:24–30), just as Peter’s vision regarding clean and unclean foods was followed by his witness to a Gentile. It is simply not possible to fully accept someone with whom you are unwilling to share in the intimacy of table fellowship (emphasis mine) (Polhill, Acts, 255-6).

In essence, Jewish believers could not be distinct in their dietary laws and share the gospel or experience fellowship with Gentiles at the same time. So God sent Peter a vision declaring foods clean as he sent Peter to the Gentiles. Acts 10 boldly asserts that the gospel is intended for all who bear the image of God–for the world. Acts 10 also demands that we repudiate racism and prejudice. So let us, God’s image bearers and gospel ambassadors go to the nations with the gospel that is universal.

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February 7, 2018 · 3:58 PM

Confession is Built Upon Reflection

Just this week the Senate of the United States failed to garner enough support (60 votes needed) to initiate the ban on abortion for babies at 20 weeks. It was named the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act. To me abortion itself is unconscionable. Life begins at conception. But this ban did not even aim at all abortions. It came about because infants in the womb can feel pain at 20 weeks. Our Senate could not even vote to ban the felt torture and eventual murder of unborn babies at 20 weeks. Our nation needs much repentance and confession.

We should not be surprised by such inaction. Confession and repentance begin at a place most people in our country have never been. When Nehemiah recorded in chapter 9 of his history the confession of the people of Israel, he began:

You are the LORD, you alone. You have made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them; and you preserve all of them; and the host of heaven worships you. You are the LORD, the God who chose Abram and brought him out of Ur of the Chaldeans and gave him the name Abraham. You found his heart faithful before you, and made with him the covenant to give to his offspring the land of the Canaanite, the Hittite, the Amorite, the Perizzite, the Jebusite, and the Girgashite. And you have kept your promise, for you are righteous. —Nehemiah 9:6-8

The rest of the chapter reflects on the goodness and covenant keeping of God and the failures and sins of Israel against God. The people of God confessed and repented of their sins. But they did not do so in a vacuum. They confessed based on several important reflections:

  1. The LORD was Creator and Covenant-Maker.
  2. While God had always kept the covenant, they had failed over and over again.
  3. They desperately needed the grace and forgiveness of God.

As Christians living in a secular culture, we are witnessing the disintegration of moral standards. All too often we are either passively ignoring or even participating in that disintegration. While you and I should bemoan failures by our politicians to ban abortions at 20 weeks, we must not forget where confession begins. Confession cannot begin in Washington, Raleigh, Charlotte, or Wilkesboro because so many in our country are not able to make the proper reflections. Confession must begin with the people of God who know that the LORD is Creator and that he is holy. Confession must begin with those who have experienced his redemption even though we do not deserve it. Confession must begin with those who recognize their need for the grace of God.

After we have confessed, after we have repented, after we have mourned, and after we have celebrated God’s forgiveness, we can move forward. Where do we go with our country and our culture? We must reintroduce them to the LORD who is the Creator. We cannot expect the unconverted and secular to act with a biblical moral compass. But we can seek the LORD, confess our own sins, and with passionate witness declare the LORD of creation to a world desperately in need of knowing him.

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9 Ways Pastors can be Above Reproach and Avoid Scandal

Article originally published at the Biblical Recorder.

The patterns of sexual misconduct exposed in elite political and media circles are staggering. We are reaping the harvest of the “free love” movement in the 1960s and other decadent cultural trends. Nothing that has been exposed should surprise us, but it should sadden and sober us.

In both personal and public life, pastors should implement practices and standards that will help protect our ministries and churches from becoming accessories to sexual impropriety. Here are nine suggestions:

1. Set boundaries.

It is both virtuous and wise to avoid intimate conversations and extended times of being alone with members of the opposite sex who are not our spouses. Hold open-door meetings or use conference rooms with windows for meetings with volunteers or staff members. As pastors and ministry leaders, we are in positions of authority and influence, and we should embody a character of virtue and godliness. We must also not be naïve. We minister in an age where false accusations occur. It is nearly impossible to be accused of impropriety if you are never in a compromising situation.

2. Use proper vetting.

Make sure all those who work with children and students have background checks and undergo a waiting period for service. As shepherds, we are responsible to protect the sheep. We should take seriously the processes and protections we put in place to make our churches safe.

3. Pursue accountability.

While we can guard against engaging in wrong behavior, we cannot fix the sinfulness within our hearts. We should preach the gospel to ourselves regularly (read Dangerous Calling by Paul David Tripp) and pursue holiness. We should also have accountability relationships. Personal accountability draws appropriate attention to our sinfulness, leads us to confession and functions as a discipline that will help us walk in holiness.

4. Know the legal requirements.

It is important to know what you are required to do legally should you or someone in your church face an accusation of abuse or harassment. You need to know your ethical and legal obligations to protect the victim and inform the authorities. The umbrella insurance company for your church is a good place to begin with appropriate policies and measures regarding these issues as it relates to staff and volunteers.

5. Avoid a cover-up.

While we must handle accusations with discretion, we must not cover anything up. We are children of the light, and we should not be afraid of addressing things in the light. We should properly address any accusation of misconduct with a thorough process of internal investigation, as well as informing the proper authorities.

6. Focus on your marriage.

It should go without saying, but the greatest protection against impurity and misconduct is a healthy marriage. Your spouse is to be your lover and defender. A marriage functioning as God intends discourages misconduct. Also, you should trust your spouse’s discernment regarding people in your circle. A healthy, trust-filled marriage is a safeguard against sexual impurity.

7. Watch your speech and jokes.

Inappropriate jokes and crude comments have no place among the body of Christ. As leaders, we must be careful that we don’t get so familiar with staff, friends and church leadership that we joke or comment inappropriately. We must remain above reproach in our speech.

8. Consider the consequences.

An accusation or an event of harassment in your setting could have catastrophic ramifications for your church. While I don’t believe that we should worry or dwell on “what ifs,” we must not stick our heads in the sand and hope things work out for the best. We owe it to our congregations to plan ahead and create protocols that could prevent such an issue.

9. Pray for God’s protection.

In all our planning and preparing we must not forget to pray. We should pray for wisdom for our church leaders. We should pray that holiness would permeate our speech and actions. We should pray that God would protect the children and families in our congregations. We should pray that perpetrators would be confronted. We should pray that victims would experience restoration.

What other practices have you implemented that help us avoid misconduct or harassment?

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Lessons I Learned When I Lost My Mom

I’ve been around church my entire life. And my career is ministry with the last two and a half years serving as a Senior Pastor. I’ve lost count of the number of families I’ve ministered to during times of death and loss. But losing my mom has taught me some things.

  1. Grief is frustratingly unique. Everybody grieves differently. I knew that before, but I really know that now. I’ve had moments of tears, moments of joy, moments of relief, and moments of sadness. Some of those have happened congruently. During the last week I’ve not known what to say, how to feel, or what to think.
  2. Show grace. Because we experience and express grief differently, it is important that we show grace to one another. I credit my wife with this advice. Her dad died suddenly about 15 years ago. She has been where I am. She told me, “Chris, give your family grace.” Her advice was pertinent and helpful. When experiencing grief or ministering to those facing grief, show grace.
  3. Care and compassion are more important than words. There is nothing to be said that can fix grief. But compassion, cards, calls, texts, food, flowers, prayers and the ministry of presence are ways that compassion are felt. While I remember little of what was said to me the past week, I remember vividly the hugs, looks, and expressions of those who have reached out.
  4. The certainty of death is more real than ever. Unless the Lord returns, we will all face death. My mom was ready to die. She is now with her Creator because she has a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. The event of death in our lives should cause us to consider our readiness for death.
  5. Death opens the door for eternal conversations. Just yesterday in the car my three year old, Nathan, said, “Meme died. She’s in heaven.” I said, “Yes, she trusted Jesus so she is in heaven.” Then he said, “I wish I could be there in heaven with Meme.” The love and tenderness of wanting to see his Meme again was precious. But it allowed me to share with him how we can be assured of going to heaven. I told him we needed to confess our sins and trust in Jesus so we could be forgiven. My mom’s death opened the door for an eternal conversation.

It has been an emotional week for me and my family. But I know my mom is better. Her pain is gone. I’m thankful for all she taught and how she poured into my life. I’m also grateful for the privilege to learn and grow from this experience. May I be a be a more gracious, compassionate, and patient pastor.

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A Tribute to My Mom

Earlier today my mom died of a heart attack. She would have been 70 years old later this month. She was a special lady. She loved deeply. She forgave. She taught. She encouraged. She believed in the importance of a biblical foundation and Christ-centered education. She prayed for her children and grandchildren to follow Jesus. She encouraged me to grow and use my gifts for God’s glory.

I’m writing this tribute because she encouraged me to write. In elementary school I used to write short little stories about sharks and boys and heroes. A few years back she gave me a box for Christmas. It contained some of those stories and many other things she kept from my childhood. It was one of the best Christmas gifts I ever received. You see, she kept everything out of love for her children.

While she can’t come back and tell you anything in person, I’m pretty sure I can speak for her on a few things.

My mom would tell you she was far from perfect. And that is true. She had her faults. We all do. But her faults were forgiven. Now her faults are no more.

My mom would tell you that her relationship with Jesus is better than ever. She used to say she was not a deep-thinking theologian. But she did know her Savior. She prayed and had a vibrant relationship with Jesus Christ. Her prayer life is an inspiration to me. No other person taught me more about prayer and God’s faithfulness than my mom.

My mom would tell you that her children were God’s gift to her. After having children of my own, I think I know what she meant. This afternoon I sat down with my boys, Will (7) and Nathan (3), to tell them that their “Meme” had died and gone to heaven to be with Jesus. I said that I was very sad and would miss her deeply. Will spoke up with a bright smile on his face and said, “You don’t have to miss her. She’s right here” (and he pointed at my heart). I burst into tears of sadness and joy. I know what she meant. My children are God’s precious gifts.

My mom would tell you that it is wonderful to be better. Her last few years were filled with aches and pains that few knew about. She lived in constant pain. But not anymore. I am deeply saddened by her death. But I am so happy she will not cry out in pain tonight. I’m so happy that her knees and hips and ankles and back no longer hurt. I am so happy that she got to see her mom and dad. I am so happy that she got to see Jesus.

My mom would tell you not to be sad for her, but to pray for her family. She always told me she was praying for me, for my family, for others. If you are reading this and want to take one thing from the life of Elaine Hefner, would you pray? Pray for those in your family who need Jesus. Pray for those who need strength. Pray for those who are suffering. Pray for those who need to sense God’s peace and presence tonight. I am proof that God answered the prayers of my mom.

Thank you mom. Love you. Will see you again one day.

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Is Your God Big Enough in 2018?

We all are entering this year with specific challenges and opportunities. Some of us have made bold resolutions that we hope will change our lives significantly. Some of us are facing sorrow and sadness due to death and disease. Others of us are optimistic and hopeful about our prospects in 2018. There is one question that we must ask ourselves over and over again. Is our God big enough?

By that question, I don’t mean that you have your own individual god. Rather, do you have the correct perspective on the God of the Bible? If there is one thing that would drastically affect your 2018 positively, it is your view of God. In the last chapter of the book of Isaiah God speaks,

Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool; what is the house that you would build for me, and what is the place of my rest? All these things my hand has made, and so all these things came to be, declares the Lord. Isaiah 66:1-2a

I’m convinced that our view of God is the most important thing in our lives. Too often our view of God limits him to a genie in a bottle, or a violent judge, or a jolly old man not so different from Santa Claus. God is rarely anything like our visions of him. When we learn to believe his own self-revelation from the Bible we are rightfully awed and gloriously encouraged. The challenges of earth sit cleanly underneath the feet of the Sovereign Lord. The location of God’s presence is not limited to a church building, but he is everywhere. And all that we see, well God made it all. So none of our challenges are challenges for God. None of our difficulties are difficult for God. None of our ambitions are ambitious for God. He is far grander, far greater, far more powerful, and far more glorious than we could ever imagine. And God tells us what our response to his grandeur should be.

But this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word. Isaiah 66:2b

When we see God for who he reveals himself to be, we can only be humble. When we see God for his holiness, we must be contrite. When we learn to read and heed God’s self-revelation from the Scripture, we must tremble in awe and application.

I cannot tell you what 2018 will hold. I cannot anticipate all the opportunities, challenges, and difficulties you and I will face. But I can tell you that if you want God’s presence and guidance through this year, you need to follow his admonitions. See his glory and humble yourself. See his holiness and be contrite. To see his glory and holiness, read his word and tremble. Tremble in fear at his astounding glory. Tremble in sorrow at your sin. Tremble in wonder at his forgiving grace. Tremble in joy at his offer of relationship.

May this year be for you the year that you see God for who he really is!

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