The Works of Men
"By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread . . ."
"[The priests] shall not gird themselves with anything which makes them sweat."
"[The priests] shall not gird themselves with anything which makes them sweat."
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Art may be beautiful, music inspiring, carpentry skillful, legislation profound without the person being a believer. But human nature -- fallen as it is -- will tend to distort whatever man does.
What's more, religious activities may go awry through the agency of this same human nature. Unfortunately, it is this religious cloak that best conceals the distorted works of man. As mentioned in the first chapter, religious sins are particularly hard to unmask. They are also hard to reverse since they have become an integral part of the system within the Church.
So it is with our motives. Things that are not intrinsically evil -- organizations, local assemblies, and missions groups -- become fertile ground for certain plantings which later overrun the field. Just as the law of Moses -- which was spiritual -- eventually became a rigid system of bondage, so our ministries devolve into pragmatic, mechanized operations. No longer do people who have gifts and callings to the missions field get sent. Rather those who fit the "personality profile" most likely to succeed in meeting the mission board's established goals are selected. Those who are too old, too young, too fat, or have too many children need not apply -- gifts and callings notwithstanding. A "tradition of men" has replaced a spiritual enterprise.
But these things do not necessarily happen consciously. They grow from seeds borne of concerns other than God's specific will. We -- as humans -- tend to want to take over the work God has given us. Eventually, we push through to succeed in our vision of His will -- with or without His help. Beneath it all is a profound lack of faith towards God and a great faith in other things to get the "job" done.
These "other things," like choking vines, tend to absorb more and more ministry time and resources. Soon the majority of the Church efforts are dedicated to propagate and protect the structure rather than glorifying God. The infection in the organization can be gauged by how much time and money of the whole goes to "maintenance" of the organization itself.
The Master's work takes precedence over the Master Himself.
These rarely appear in their crass form. The love of money, for instance, generally is not the craven greed that is characterized in the TV-preacher movies from Hollywood. Most churches begin by knowing that money plays an important role in ministry. However, that understanding becomes distorted to the point where we imagine that money is the essential fuel of ministry. We even think that if our church (or other ministry group) should "go under" that the work itself would go undone -- as if God's hands would be tied without us.
Without realizing it -- in most cases -- we believers have begun to place we faith in money to accomplish the preaching of the gospel. Money replaces God as the engine of God's work.
The seduction is subtle, like a creeping vine, and would seldom be spoken in such direct terms.
This trust in God to accomplish the work may also be transferred to position or power as easily as money. We may come to trust in the image we project to the world around us or the influence we have over others as the pivotal issue. Being overly concerned with reputation may cause us to shrink from important work in order to maintain the appearance of respectability. Our desire for influence may cause us to blend in with the surroundings for the reward of acceptability. In an attempt to project a Christian image we can become so intent on the exterior identification marks that we neglect simple obedience to God's sometimes embarrassing commands.
In either case, we come to the place where we begin to believe that our primary objective is to gain a place of influence or power instead of obeying and glorifying God. This drift is probably as unintentional as it is unnoticed. We come to depend on money, position, and power to bring about the will of God little by little.
We Don't Need God
-- The Church at Laodicea
--The Revelation 3: 17
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Often, however, we read the letter directed at these people and fail to look behind the words. I think, when considering the text, we should ask a couple of questions. First of all, was the Laodicean Church always like this? Also, did the quote written above actually come from the mouth of someone in the Church?
The first, I believe, can be answered "No." I suspect that that Church started like most -- with a move of the Holy Spirit and a people on fire to serve the true God. They are a prime example of the leavening effect described in the segment above. As they gained in wealth and stature, they began more and more to depend on the wealth and stature to uphold them.
As to the second question, this is more difficult. The text seems to point to the possibility that someone had actually spoken these words. The point of the passage, though, is that they were no longer dependent upon God. They had all they needed and they could handle it from here, thank you very much, Lord. It was the actual dependence of their hearts that was at issue, not whether or not someone was crass enough to utter the words.
Another thing not at issue was the wealth itself. Many people are under the mistaken impression that greed is an attribute of wealthy people. Actually, there are two kinds of people who have come to place their faith in riches: 1) Those who have money, and 2) Those who don't.
Those who have it become accustomed to relying upon it to fix their every problem and answer their every need. Those who do not have it, have absolute faith that having money would solve their problems and meet their needs. Both are wrong. Neither faith in money, nor power, nor position will bring about the will of God. Only God Himself is sufficient for these things. Trust in anything else, like the Laodiceans, is the same as saying, "We don't need God."
The Bumped Cup Test
"Not too profound an observation," you might think, but its simplicity is deceiving.
It is a perfect corollary to the observation Jesus made about cleaning the outsides of cups. (Matthew 23: 25-26) This preacher was simply extrapolating that what is really inside men will be revealed under sudden and unexpected "bumping" in life. For instance, someone may be all sweetness and light to everyone he meets, but his true nature is likely to emerge when someone backs their old clunker into his new Lincoln in the church parking lot.
This is one way that the Holy Spirit uses to reveal to us our continuing need of heart conversion. He sends us irritants to show us our innate irritability. And it is the irritability that needs to go -- not the irritant. But as hypocritical human beings, we tend to dodge the implications of our spilled substance. "Look what you made me do," we retort. We act as if our own responses to bumping were the product of something outside and apart from the cup when, in reality, it is what was inside that came forth.
The Scripture tells us, "The mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart. The good man out of his good treasure brings forth that which is good; and the evil man out of his evil treasure brings forth that which is evil." (Matthew 12:35-36) This simple truth is one we would rather deny when foul word exit our lips (especially around other believers). "I don't know what got into me," we say not recognizing that it is not what "got into" us but what resides in us that was the source. It is much simpler to struggle to change our surface behavior or the irritating situation than to change the heart. But we deceive ourselves if we merely exercise greater outward control without going to God for a changed inner man.
We Americans like to think of ourselves as nice people -- so we put on nice, civilized exteriors. This, by itself, is not wrong. Life is much simpler if people behave in a civil manner toward one another. But it is also deceptive if nothing below the surface changes. That will lead to hypocrisy.
Whole civilizations have crumbled once they have lost the central precepts that founded their civility. In America today, we see that degenerative process in action. The American "inner man" that held the Bible to be a true guide to right and wrong is no longer, but we do see nonbelievers display the shell of Christian morality by touting honesty and other virtues. When, however, they are discovered in a lie, they point out that there really is no basis for a belief in honesty, after all -- and they are right. Without an absolute standard and a changed nature, morality is a vapor.
A man who chooses to live behind a veneer of righteousness will ultimately blind himself to the need for cleaning the inside. The more difficult cross to bear is to admit our corrupt natures and, as Paul the apostle put it, "die daily."
Nit Pickin' About Pickin' Nits
"He who is faithful in a very little thing," Jesus said, "is faithful also in mech.." (Luke 16: 10) The inverse is also true. When we choose to violate the Word in small areas, betray a larger spiritual problem beneath. We are fully capable of unfaithfulness in larger areas. This is especially true of a people who are trying to appear righteous and religious.
Using the previous analogy, if the bumping of our cups in daily living produces a religiously-excused sin, what do we suppose lies inside the rest of the cup. Actually, the evil manifest in the bloodguilt of the American Church is, alone, quite enough to sink our ship. But it is necessary for us to know that these conditions are not isolated -- that the corruption saturates the fiber of the American Church.