Four-Letter Praise

I received an unspeakably great honor recently.

I was at a bible study with folks less than half my age, unchurched folks. After the study, we began to pray, and the shaggy, pierced kid to my left began to pour out his heart to God. He was declaring his love, and at the same time, asking God’s blessing, He was doing it in his native language. And his native language was thick with four-letter words.

Immediately, something rose up inside me: I was offended! But just as immediately, Father drew my attention to the heart that was pouring out that stream of “profanity.” Quickly, I saw it from His perspective: how tender, how sincere, how transparent, how beautiful. I felt Father’s joy, delighting in that prayer which offended me so badly. And I began, just barely began, to understand, and as I did, tears formed in my eyes.

This was “love from a pure heart, from a good conscience, and from sincere faith.” (1 Timothy 1:5) This was exactly what he was looking for: someone worshiping him “in Spirit and in truth.” God was delighted with this prayer from his beloved son!

And I’ve had to admit: “cuss words” are just noises. It’s the heart behind them, it’s the intent, that gives them meaning. God is not offended by noises. Maybe I shouldn’t ought to be either.

Now, having said that, having rejoiced at being present at such an intimate outpouring of love in four-letter vocabulary, I should probably add: this isn’t my language; it doesn’t justify my using that fellow’s language to communicate, either with God or with man.

Whenever I bring this topic up, there’s always someone who angrily responds, “But the Bible says to not use filthy language!” And it does, but in the same sentence it says to put off anger.  Hmm.  And anger is also encouraged, even commanded (Ephesians 4:26). Hmmm again. Maybe this isn’t as “black & white” as I thought.

The word for “filthy language” here is “ασχρολογία,” which is literally “ασχρός [aischros] words.”  And aischros words are words that are dishonoring, shameful: he’s speaking about the heart (no surprise there), not about the sounds coming out of the larynx.

Aischros is also the “filthy” part of “filthy lucre” which is more commonly translated “dishonest gain.” Again, the command is not about certain sounds, certain noises, that are off limits, but the heart behind the sounds. We foolishly think that as long as we don’t make those particular sounds, we can tell people off (perhaps in Facebook comments?), we can cut people off in traffic, point out others’ mistakes, tell shady jokes and leave lousy tips. All of these are violations of the same intent: dishonoring, shameful, dishonest gain. 

Renowned Greek scholar, Richard C Trench, concludes that aischros “includes therein every license of the ungoverned tongue employing itself in the abuse of others, all the wicked condiments of saucy speech,” and adding, “the context and company in which the word is used by him going far to prove as much; seeing that all other sins against which he is here warning are outbreaks of a loveless spirit toward our neighbour.”

Other principles apply, though I hate to reference principles, knowing how quickly they’re wielded as laws. Paul outlines some of them in his first letter to believers in Corinth:

§         “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be mastered by anything.” (1 Corinthians 6:12)
§         “All things are lawful, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful, but not all things edify.” (1 Corinthians 10:23)

It seems that there are three appropriate questions to ask here:

1.      Is this practice profitable?
2.      Is this practice mastering me?
3.      Does this practice edify or build people up?

In the case of four-letter vocabulary, asking these questions – particularly as they relate to the next generation – gave me some surprising answers. I’ll get different answers, of course, when I ask them related to churchgoers, but I expected that.

But then he suggested to me: “Now ask these questions about the practice of correcting other people’s four-letter vocabulary.” Oh my. That one failed all three. 

I find myself drawn to these conclusions: Four letter vocabulary is not my language, but I’m not going to condemn myself over my language choices when I hit my thumb with a hammer. And my offense at others’ use of a language that is not my own appears to be far more offensive to God than either their language or mine.

Insights from the Book of Job

One of the most useful insights from reading the Book of Job is seeing the difference between what went on in Heaven, and how it manifested on earth, in Job’s life. (The worst use of the book is learning theology from Job’s “friends.” What a train wreck!)
Job never knew about the dialog between God and Satan. In fact, Job (and Job’s whole culture) didn’t really know about Satan, so they believed that God did all this bad stuff, when the Book *clearly* says it was Satan. (It’s embarrassing how many Christians believe the same way today.)
Job blamed God for the disasters that had struck him, and called him throughout the book to account for why he’d done such evil to him. The oddest part, from my perspective, was this: God took the blame. (I observe that at no point, did Job ever ask God, “Did you do this?” or even “Who did this?” Maybe that would have been useful.)
At no point during God’s several chapters of response to Job’s accusations did God ever say, “That wasn’t me. That was the devil.” In fact, God’s reply can reasonably be summarized as, “Job, this is above your pay grade. You don’t even have the capacity to understand what went on in this.” 

God took the blame for the devil’s destruction, knowing he was innocent. 

How many other times does it happen in scripture: the devil wreaks havoc, but we blame God for the destruction. 

We have *got* to read the Old Testament through the lens of Jesus, who was the “exact representation” of God’s nature. If we don’t see death in destruction in the ministry of Jesus, then death and destruction is not part of God’s character or his job description. 

Maybe it would be useful to look at the stories of the Old Testament through the revelation that is Jesus, and ask the question:“Who did this?”

Africa! No! Not Africa!


It was a quiet day. I was a quiet evangelical man, doing my quiet evangelical duty: I was in the middle of my "quiet time" with God, something I did every morning, because that's what good evangelical men did.

I had dutifully read the appropriate chapter in the epistle I was working my way through, and had dutifully opened my journal to record my dutiful response when it happened.

God spoke.

"What would you do if I told you to go to Africa?"

I sat there, frozen; stunned.

First of all, God didn't speak to me. Didn't he know I was an evangelical?

But Africa? Don't be ridiculous. I hated Africa. It was filled with jungles and deserts and diseases and dirt. It was completely untidy.

Africa? Don't be ridiculous. What on earth would I do in Africa? I worked for a giant department store, selling fine china and luggage to wealthy residents of our community. I was painfully aware that these were skills that would not serve me well among lions and tigers and bears in Africa!

Africa? Don't be ridiculous. I had been taught - I had taught others - that God's direction always confirmed what was in your heart anyway. "He will give you the desires of your heart!" I had not one iota of desire for Africa.

But the question still hung there, in my soul, resonating. It had only been that "still small voice" that everybody talked about, but nobody (among my tidy evangelical friends) ever actually heard. The fact that the voice wasn't actually spoken into a marble cathedral did nothing to still its startling echo in my soul.

God asked me a question! Ohmigosh! WhatamIgoingtodo? (I had never known that it was possible to so completely panic while sitting quietly in my big "Papa chair" in a quiet house. This was a new experience.)

Ohmigosh! Ohmigosh! I have to answer him! Ohmigosh! What am I going to say?

It was (painfully, oh so painfully) clear to me that the one thing I could not say with any integrity was, "No, Lord." If nothing else, it's an oxymoron, but I was afraid if I told God "no" that I'd burn in heck for all eternity. (Dutiful evangelical men don't use that other, coarser word.) I couldn't say, "no."

But Oh! how I wanted to say no. I wanted to jump up on my comfortable chair, there in my comfortable living room, before I walked to my comfortable job in the comfortable store! I wanted to jump up and shout in God's face, "No! Not Africa! I won't go to Africa! You can't make me!"

But the problem was: he could make me. And besides, there's that "Lord" thing. You don't tell your Lord and King, "No." It's just not done. Especially, it's not done by dutiful evangelical men who dutifully tithe to their dutiful little churches.

I sat there, stewing in my own juices, until it was time to go to work, and I left God behind as I rushed out the door to go to work. I told myself that I needed to focus on selling fine Lenox and Wedgewood china, and fine Hartman leather luggage to fine local dowagers.

I didn't forget his question, try as I might. I very seldom pulled it out of the shadows and worked intentionally on it, but I knew it was always there, reverberating in my soul, waiting patiently for my submission, like a vulture waiting for me to die in the desert.

It took weeks, even months, for me to get fed up enough with the tension. One morning, I determined to face the cursed question head on. Let's do this! You’re going down, buddy!

I was out of bed before my alarm rang, teeth violently brushed, hair disheveled, and I slammed myself into that chair, and slammed my Bible and journal on the arm of the chair, and I addressed the One who had confronted me, me! with such an outlandish question!

His presence was there, and instantly, I cowered before him. A dutiful evangelical man does not get in God's face like that. What was I thinking?? It was all clear to me now. It was all over.

And as I cowered in my chair, alone in the dark room, I whimpered my submission. "OK, Lord. You win. I'll go wherever you send me. Even." I took a deep breath. I let it out slowly. "Even.." I shuddered. This was hard! You can do this! "Even.. . even Africa."

And now it all suddenly all relaxed. The pressure hadn’t been him, anyways. The war had never been with God; it had all been in my mind, and now it was gone.

But he wasn’t gone. I felt him waiting there, waiting for my attention. I gave it to him.

“Thank you.” I felt the words as much as heard them in my spirit. There was healing in his words.

“Thank you. Now go to Hawaii.”

And I kid you not: he sent us to live in Hawaii for a season.

And do you want to hear the funniest part? While we were living in Hawaii, a love for Africa began to grow inside me. And now I’m looking forward to the day that he really will send me to Africa.

Thoughts About he Word of God

In areas subjects of theology, even a small change is formidable, and I believe we’re encountering the beginnings of such a change in how the people of God (or at least, for many of them) see the Bible.

And I’d appreciate you hearing me out
before you start picking up stones and coming after me. I’m reporting what I’m seeing. If you’re not seeing them, that’s cool. (Now, if you’re not willing to look, that’s another story, perhaps.)

Now before we talk about what the Bible “is not,” it might be best to remember what the Bible IS.

First, let’s acknowledge that “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and IS  profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the servant of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.” The Bible is the profitable foundation for doctrine, for reproof, for correction and for instruction so that we may be complete.

It is our only Sword of the Spirit, and is the best conceivable weapon against the enemy: it was for Jesus, and it is for us. It is a pillar of our faith, the indescribably precious treasure to all who walk in faith.

But there are some things that the Bible is not, which we have let it become. It seems to me that Father is correcting some of these errors in these days.

The first thing that I’m seeing happen is that the Bible is being removed from its traditional place in the Trinity. I know several denominations who have behaved (not taught!) that the Trinity was made up of Father, Son, and Holy Bible, that the Bible is itself, divine. They spoke and behaved as if their primary heavenly relationship was with the Bible, not with the person of God.

That’s actually a mistake, of course, and stopping to think about it will reveal the truth is that the Bible is not a person of the Trinity; it is not in itself, God. Rather, the Bible is about God, it leads us to God, and it speaks for God, which is to say that God speaks through it.

The Bible says of itself, as quoted above, that it is “given by inspiration of God.” Another translation reads “God-breathed.” Theologically, we say it’s “inspired writing.” Another way of saying that is to say that the men who wrote it were inspired by God when they wrote.

But let us acknowledge that while it is “profitable for teaching,” we might want to be careful what we teach and how we teach it, when we teach from the Bible.

There’s a fair bit of the Bible (most of the book of Job comes to mind) are accurate, inspired, infallible records of what people said, but the things that they said, though accurately recorded, are foolish lies about who God is and how he works. I advise not teaching theology from the lies that are accurately recorded.

A friend of mine – and probably some of yours have done this, too – once tested the “profitable” status of the Bible. She opened the Book randomly and plopped her finger on the page (I call this “Bible Roulette”), and read the verse she was on. It read, “and Judas went and hanged himself.” (Matthew 27:5) Since she couldn’t find anything useful in that, she flipped some more pages, and dropped her finger again, this time on Luke 10:37: “Then Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise’.” She didn’t try that again. The Bible is not a fortune teller.

The point is this: while all of the Bible is inspired, and all of it is profitable to teach, it’s not all profitable to teach all things. My friend figured this out, and, fortunately, she chose not to go and hang herself.

I’m going to use a politically incorrect analogy. I am a huge fan of the glory that is embodied in the female half of our species. I’m constantly amazed by the richness of the difference between men (well, at least this man) and godly women. Women seem to have a better handle on gifts of mercy, of discernment, of encouragement. I’ve learned mountains from women pastors, women prophets, women intercessors, and at least one woman apostle. We could go on and on.

But there’s a phenomenon in our culture that does to women what much of the church has done to the Bible: we’ve objectified them. In our culture, the objectification of women shows up in glossy skin magazines, in a thriving porn industry, even in the use of unrelated pretty faces to get our attention in movies, advertisements, and the like.

If I may take a stand on that trend, I will say that this is NOT the right way to treat women, and for a whole lot of reasons. Not least of which, is that it completely denies the vast majority of the magnificent riches that women have and are. Brethren, it ought not be so!

But we do pretty much the same thing with the Bible. We look to the Bible to be our “quick fix.” We paste out-of-context Bible verses on pretty pictures and cover our Facebook walls. When we’re feeling needy, we look for fast answers from its pages; when we want direction, we search those pages for answers with the same attention that the followers of horoscopes search their own pages. Brethren, this, too, ought not be so.

It is not actually heresy for me to declare that the Bible is not a destination. God never planned that we’d use the revelations of his written Word as a replacement for a relationship with himself! That’s actually idolatry, or if you prefer, Bibliolatry. It’s a serious error.

The Bible is always a means TO an end. It’s a roadmap to understand God’s heart. It’s a love story from him to us, drawing us to him. It’s a garden, where we can sit with him under the apple tree and gaze into each other’s eyes. It’s a treasure map, showing us where to search out the treasures that he’s hidden, like Easter eggs, for us to find. It’s full of instructional stories, showing how many our brothers and sisters, our forefathers and foremothers discovered the riches of relationship with their eternal lover, or how they failed and fell short. All these are for us to learn from, not to be studied or memorized as a substitute for our won love relationship with God.

It is my hope that we’ll catch ourselves when our search stops merely at his Book, as wonderful, as powerful, as necessary as the Book is, and use the rich treasures of the Book to lead us to deeper relationship with its incredible Author.

Beggars Can’t Be Choosers. But We're Not Beggars

There’s an old saying: “Beggars can’t be choosers.”

Sometimes, it’s actually right. If you’re living on hand-me-downs, you don’t get to choose what kind of fashion statement to make. Whoever’s handing it down to you got to choose that. You’re stuck with their decision. If you’re begging for food on the street corner, then you can’t choose if people will give you something, or if they do, what they will give. The most you can do is attempt to look more pitiful than other mendicants, so that you’ll get more donations, but you still can’t choose.

I’ve known a number of people who have “lived by faith” and it’s looked like that. Heck, I’ve done it myself.

But that principle is only true for beggars. It’s only true for people who have no provision themselves, who must depend on the generosity of others for their food and drink and the roof over their head. It’s true for slaves, too: a slave only gets what his master gives him.

In fact, it works as a test. If I hold the perspective that I’m stuck with whatever someone else will give to me, then that’s a good indication that I consider myself a beggar or a slave. If I believe that the only way that I’ll ever be provided for is if I can persuade other people to provide for me, then that says that I see myself as a beggar.

And of course, that suggests that some of the TV preachers – those who are regularly asking for money – have the heart of a beggar inside them.

There are alternatives, of course. Being a beggar isn’t the only choice before us.

We could choose the Older Brother Syndrome: “I have to work for anything I’m going to get.” We all know (heck, some of us ARE) people who expect that nobody else will provide for them, so if it’s going to happen, they’ve got to make it happen. But this isn’t the choice I want to recommend.

I think the place we need to get to is the place of sonship. Galatians 4:7 says, “Therefore you are no longer a slave, but a son; and if a son, then an heir through God.” We are not beggars, not slaves, and not even employees, working hard to provide for ourselves.

We’re heirs to the Kingdom. And as heirs, the wealth of the Kingdom is ours to use for the purposes of the Kingdom. (A son of the Kingdom doesn’t spend the Kingdom’s wealth on his own pleasures, but provision for the sons and daughters is a major purpose of the Kingdom’s wealth.)

That is not to say that we never work. Sons of the Kingdom work! We just don’t work in order to be fed. We work to administrate the Kingdom. In fact, Paul indicated that work is a principle of the Kingdom: “If anyone is not willing to work, then he is not to eat, either.” (2 Thessalonians 3:10) And this is not just talking about “ministry work.” Paul’s own example was building tents for a nomadic people (Acts 18:3).

And of course, there’s the difference between theory and practice. There’s the minor detail that, as Jesus said to Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world.” So there will be a correlation between how much we’re in touch with the Kingdom and our ability to draw provision from that Kingdom to this world.

Beggars can’t be choosers. But sons are required to choose.