Copyright by Bob Rogers.
Billy Graham has said, “People in the South have been exposed to so much religion that many of them have been inoculated against getting the real thing!”
In Romans 2:17-3:18, the apostle Paul points out three deceptions of having religion without a relationship with Jesus:
1. The deception of spiritual pride (2:17-24). Muhammad Ali once got on an airplane, and the flight attendant told him to buckle his seat belt. He said, “Superman don’t need no seat belt.” She replied, “Superman don’t need no airplane.” It’s easy to be proud of how spiritual we are, and forget that we are nothing without Christ. Paul talks about how the Jewish people were proud of their spirituality, but failed to practice what they preached. Substitute the word “religious” for “Jew” and it can apply to any of us.
2. The deception of depending on ritual (2:25-3:4). Some people think that because they are baptized, go to church, receive communion, etc., that they are right with God. It ain’t necessarily so! The Jews were proud of their circumcision. It was the mark of their identity. But they forgot that God wanted a circumcision of the heart (v. 29; see also Deuteronomy 30:6). While there are advantages to religious faith, like having the Word of God and our church (3:1-4), it can deceive us into thinking it saves us. Only Jesus can save.
3. The deception of presuming on grace (3:5-8). Once the great Reformer, Martin Luther, saw a drunk in the alley. The drunk said, “You’re Martin Luther! I’m one of your disciples!” Luther replied, “You must be one of mine, because you are none of Christ’s.” Luther preached salvation by grace, but he knew that a truly saved person would show it in his life.
Paul was falsely accused of teaching that salvation by grace meant you could live in immorality and it didn’t matter. Paul was not saying that at all. While we preach grace, we must not be deceived into playing games with our religious theology. As 2 Corinthians 6:1 says, Don’t receive God’s grace in vain. A person who truly receives grace by faith will have a new heart’s desire to follow Christ.
Jefferson Bethke puts it this way:
“Religion says do,
Jesus says done.
Religion says slave,
Jesus says son.
Religion puts you in shackles but Jesus sets you free.
Religion makes you blind, but Jesus lets you see.”
My wife and I saw the sneak preview of the new motion picture, The Shack. I posted a review earlier of the bestselling book (click here to read it) of the same title by William Paul Young, so I wanted to follow up with this review of the movie.
The Shack is a deeply emotional film about a man named Mack Phillips, played by Sam Worthington, who is angry at God because of the abusive and tragic circumstances he experienced as a child and as an adult. The film tells the story of a deeply personal tragedy that occurs at a shack in the woods, and how Mack gets a letter from God, inviting him to return to the shack and deal with his pain. Mack returns, and there meets God in three persons, who engage him in experiences and conversations that allow him to rediscover the goodness of God. After he resolves these issues and learns to accept forgiveness and give forgiveness, Mack returns to his family a changed man. The plot uses flashbacks to tell about the tragedies in his life. Much of the story is framed as a visionary dream, which is a major departure from the plot of the original book. The plot moves well at the beginning and the end, although it may seem a bit long in the middle, if you are not engaged in the conversations.
Octavia Spencer plays “Papa,” a character representing God the Father, who appears to Mack as an affectionate African-American woman. She explains that since Mack could not relate to God as a father, due to his childhood experiences with an abusive father, Papa has chosen to appear as a mother figure. In fact, all three persons of the Trinity are there. The Son, representing Jesus, is a Middle Eastern man, played by Abraham Aviv Alush, and Sarayu (the Spirit), played by Sumire Matsubara, is represented by a young Asian woman who glows and shines and sometimes just disappears. Although God is represented as three different persons, they act in unison, as one person continues a conversation with Mack that he had earlier with the other person.
The movie deals powerfully with the question of why God allows suffering. Papa, The Son, and Sarayu do not offer easy answers, but they help Mack to get a bigger picture of how God loves, forgives and redeems. For example, when Mack angrily tells Papa that Papa could not be good and allow the Son to suffer on the cross, Papa shows nail scars in her own wrist, and says with tears, “Don’t think that I wasn’t also there when my Son died.” In another scene, Jesus sends Mack on a path to a cave where he meets a female called Wisdom, who lets Mack sit in the judgment seat of God and see what it is like to be a judge, an experience that overwhelms him, reminding him that no human should try to play God, and also hinting at the reason Jesus had to die for our sins. Unfortunately, the emphasis on God’s love is so strong, that a balanced statement about God’s holiness is lacking. God reminds Mack that sin has consequences, but when Mack bluntly asks Papa about God’s wrath, Papa could have said that God is holy and offended by sin, but instead only emphasized God’s goodness and love.
The film quality
This is a quality film production. There are breathtaking nature scenes, scenes filled with color and light, darkness and drama. The music is engaging, but not distracting. The main actors and supporting cast are all convincing in their roles. Octavia Spencer exudes love and kindness as Papa, and Sam Worthington explodes with emotion and pain as Mack. Country singer Tim McGraw does a good job as a supporting actor, playing Mack’s friend, who becomes a narrator of the story.
Comparisons with the book
Fans of the book will probably also like the movie, and some critics of the book may like the movie better than the book. I don’t remember hearing any profanity in the movie, although the book has some profanity. The portrayal of God the Father as a woman is explained sooner and more clearly in the movie than in the book. There were several passages in the book that critics accused of teaching universal salvation (that all people will go to heaven), particularly some conversations Mack had with the persons of the Trinity. Most of those controversial conversations do not occur in the movie, although the movie does repeat the words of Jesus that He is not a “Christian” (which came across as humorous to me both in the book and film.) The movie puts more emphasis on God’s love than on God’s judgment, although it it reminds the viewer that God does make judgments of heaven and hell and that sin does have consequences. After the movie was over, I asked my wife, who has not read the book, if she thought the movie taught universal salvation, and she said, “Not at all.”
Spoiler alert: If you have read the book, you will notice that the movie ends a little differently. It makes the whole encounter at the shack into a visionary dream, and while the book has Mack actually finding his daughter’s body and giving it a proper burial, the movie shows that happening as part of his dream. Then the movie focuses at the end on Mack going to church with his family and having a new faith in God. The movie added the friend as a narrator of the story at the beginning and end, which I thought was a good framing device for the story.
I liked the original book, despite its flaws, but I liked the movie even more. What I like the most is that it deals with the important issues of pain, suffering, the redemption God offers through Jesus Christ. I wept several times as I thought about my own sin and need for forgiveness, and it moved me to want to be more forgiving towards others. My wife commented that the story touches nearly every person at some level in their lives. This film offers a vivid story that can open up discussions with our friends and neighbors about how our hope is found, not in an old rustic shack, but on an old rugged cross.
Article Copyright 2017 by Bob Rogers
Once I met a guy in the gym who had muscles of steel. I was amazed when he told me that he used to be fat, until he decided to get into shape.
First Timothy 4:7-8 says, “Train yourself in godliness, for the training of the body has a limited benefit, but godliness is beneficial in every way, since it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.” Many of us are spiritually fat. But just as my friend got physically fit, you can get into spiritual shape. Here’s how:
I. Put your heart into it.
Dotsie Bausch was riding a mountain bike one day when a group of competitive road cyclists flew past her. Dotsie chased them and stayed on their heels for two miles. That night, she told a friend, “This cycling thing, I’m actually pretty decent at it.” Four years later she was on the U.S. national cycling team. Her heart was all in. (Evan Miller, “Dotsie Bausch: Cycling,” Guideposts, July 2012, p. 47-49.)
Ezekiel 18:31. “Throw off all the transgressions you have committed, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit.” You must put your heart into it.
II. Remove hindrances.
In football, the offense has a big obstacle. It’s called the defense.
In the spiritual life, sinful obstacles block us, too.
Hebrews 12:1: “… let us lay aside every weight and the sin that so easily ensnares us, Let us run with endurance the race that lies before us.”
Choose to remove the hindrances to your spiritual life, especially sinful lifestyles that have been dragging you down. Do it!
III. Exercise your spirit daily.
There are two major types of exercise: cardiovascular exercise, also known as aerobic exercise, and strength training, which is usually by lifting weights. Healthy athletes have a balance of both. Likewise, you need a balance of spiritual exercises, often called the “spiritual disciplines.” These include Bible reading and prayer, but they also include meditation and memorization of scripture, service and stewardship, worship and witness. A healthy spiritual life develops from regular practice of these spiritual disciplines.
As the apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 9:26-27: “Therefore I do not run like one who runs aimlessly or box like one beating the air. Instead, I discipline my body and bring it under strict control, so that after preaching to others, I myself will not be disqualified.”
IV. Keep your eyes on the prize.
Hebrews 12:2 says, “Keeping our eyes on Jesus, the source and perfecter of our faith…”
In 2008, I was about 35 pounds overweight. I was breathing hard just walking to the second floor. My pants were too tight. I didn’t like how I looked. I made a decision to change, and put my heart into it. It was a lifestyle change, as I got serious about exercise, eating right, and sticking with it. Over a year, I took off the weight. Today, nine years later, I have maintained my lower weight and healthier lifestyle.
I had tried fad diets before, but I finally had success when I kept my focus on a goal and stuck with it.
In a much greater way, the same principle applies to your spiritual life.
How about you? Are you getting into spiritual shape? It’s got to start with a change of heart. Are you ready to begin the journey?
Are you satisfied with your prayer life? Many are not. Christianity Today magazine did an online poll, and out of 678 respondents, only 23 felt satisfied with the time they were spending in prayer. (Philip Yancey, Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference? p. 15).
Yet in the Gospels, Jesus Himself specifically tells us how to get our prayers answered. Listen to what He says…
I. Ask in Jesus’ name
“If you ask Me anything in My name, I will do it.” John 14:14, HCSB
Praying in Jesus’ name does not mean using Jesus’ name like a magic chant. It means coming to represent all that Jesus stands for. For example, if the president of the United States sends you as an ambassador to Mexico, then when you go to Mexico City, you are going in the name of the president. You represent his interests and the interests of the United States. You cannot just say anything. You must say what represents the president’s wishes, because you are speaking in his name.
Likewise, praying in Jesus’ name must come from knowing Jesus and all that Jesus represents. There is an interesting example of this is found in Acts 19. It says seven Jewish exorcists in Ephesus “attempted to pronounce the name of the Lord Jesus over those who had evil spirits, saying, ‘I command you by the Jesus that Paul preaches!’ But verse 15 says that the evil spirit answered them, “I know Jesus, and I recognize Paul—but who are you?” Then the spirit pounced on them, and the exorcists ran out of the house stripped naked and wounded! (Acts 19:13-16)
Why did this happen? Was the name of Jesus not effective? The very next verse after this story explains it. Acts 19:17 says, “This became know to everyone who lived in Ephesus… then fear fell on all of them, and the name of the Lord Jesus was magnified.” People recognized that it is a serious thing to pray in Jesus’ name, and it is not to be done lightly. To pray in Jesus’ name demands that we know Jesus and what He stands for.
George Mueller, the great prayer warrior who ran an orphanage in England, said, “Prayer is not overcoming God’s reluctance. It is laying hold of God’s willingness.” We must learn to pray in God’s will. We do that by praying in Jesus’ name.
II. Ask while remaining in Christ
“If you remain in Me and My words remain in you, ask whatever you want and it will be done for you.” John 15:7, HCSB
Tony Evans tells the story of two dogs who lived at the same house: a German shepherd and a poodle. They were arguing about which dog was the greatest. The German shepherd argued that he was bigger and stronger; the poodle argued that he was cuter.
The German shepherd proposed a contest: they would test their greatness by seeing who could get inside the house of the owner first. Poodle agreed. The German shepherd went first. With its strength, it went up on its hind legs, opened its mouth, and put it on the doorknob. He couldn’t turn the knob with his mouth, so he took his paws and began twisting. After about three minutes, he had twisted the door open. He was worn out, but he finally got the door open.
Next, the poodle took his turn. He went to the other door, got on his hind lets, and scratched. The owner came and opened the door. The poodle was inside the house and was in the lap of the owner, being petted, in less than 30 seconds.
What was the difference? The German shepherd was trying to get the door open by his own strength. The poodle was depending on his master to open it because he had a relationship with his master. (Tony Evans’ Book of Illustrations, p. 168-169)
Ole Hallesby, the great Norwegian writer on prayer, says, “Your helplessness is your best prayer.” (O. Hallesby, Prayer, p. 19). What he means is that when we come before God totally helpless and dependent on Him, is when our prayers have most impact, because it is prayer while remaining in Christ.
III. Ask in faith
“And if you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.” Matthew 21:22, HCSB
Richard Foster is a Christian author and professor at Azusa Pacific University. During his second week at the school, one of his students, named Maria, fell out of a pickup truck and hit her head on the pavement. He rushed to the hospital and joined the students who gathered to pray, fervently calling on God to heal her. Then he went back to the campus, and while he was there, he joined some of the faculty who gathered to pray for Maria.
At the faculty prayer meeting, one prayed, “We place Maria into your hands; there is nothing else we can do.” Another prayed, “Lord, help Maria to get well, if it be thy will.” Dr. Foster agreed that we should seek God’s will, but this kind of praying sounded more like they did not believe Maria could be healed. Their prayers hindered his faith. So he left and went back to the hospital. By this time, her parents had arrived, and they joined the gathered students in praying, believing God was fully able to heal Maria. About 6:00 a.m., the parents decided to pray by picturing in their minds that Maria was waking up. At that very moment a student was in the ICU with Maria, and said Maria opened her eyes and smiled at her. Within a week she was released from the hospital and completely healed. Pray in faith! (Richard Foster, Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home, p. 212-214)
IV. Keep asking
“Keep asking, and it will be given to you. Keep searching, and you will find. Keep knocking, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who searches finds,and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.” Matthew 7:7-8, HCSB
Mother Teresa said, “If you want to pray better, you must pray more.” (Philip Yancey, Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference? p. 161)
Christian pastor Youcef Nadarkhani was in jail in Iran for three years for his faith. During that time, millions of Christians learned to pray faithfully on his behalf. God decided to answer those prayers. But why didn’t God set him free sooner? God wants us to learn to keep on asking, because in continuing to ask, we learn to depend upon God.
For fifteen years, an Italian mother named Monica prayed for her son to come to Christ. Once, she prayed all night that God would stop him from going to Rome, because she knew how much trouble he would get into in the big city. Yet he slipped out of the house and went to Rome, anyway. Were her prayers unanswered?
Not at all! On that trip to Rome, her son had an experience with Jesus Christ, and became a believer. Reflecting back on it later, he said that God denied his mother once in order to grant her what she had prayed for always.
Oh, and by the way, her son’s name was Augustine. Augustine went on to become one of the greatest theologians in Christian history. (Philip Yancey, p. 241.)
So, my brothers and sisters: pray in Jesus’ name, pray while remaining in Christ, pray in faith, and keep on praying!
“Call to Me and I will answer you and tell you great and incomprehensible things you do not know.” — Jeremiah 33:3, HCSB
Some say God’s “phone number” is JER 33.3, referring to this great promise of Jeremiah 33:3 that God will give great answers to our prayers. The context of this promise is the great prayer of Jeremiah in 32:16-25. In that passage, we notice three characteristics of great prayer:
1) Pray to a great God.
Jeremiah speaks of God’s great character in verse 17: “Oh, Lord God! You Yourself made the heavens and earth by Your great power and with Your outstretched arm. Nothing is too difficult for you!” He speaks of God’s great covenant in verse 18: “You show faithful love to thousands…” He speaks of God’s great counsel in verse 19: “the One great in counsel and mighty in deed…”
2) Pray believing God still acts today.
Notice that in verse 20, Jeremiah not only remembers God’s signs and wonders in Egypt, but goes on to say that God continues to “do so to this very day.”
3) Pray believing God keeps His promises.
Jeremiah prayed in verse 24, pointing out that God was allowing the city of Jerusalem to be conquered just as He had promised would happen. God warned them that they would be punished, and they were, as Babylon laid siege to the walls of Jerusalem (see Jeremiah 32:2). But God also promised that after 70 years, He would punish Babylon and bring them home, so they had a future and a hope (Jeremiah 29:10-14). Jeremiah reasoned that if God kept His promise of punishment, He would also keep His promise of grace. Thus, believing they would come back one day, Jeremiah told the Lord in verse 25 that since God told him to buy property for the future in the land of Judah, he would buy it, even as they were about to be taken to Babylon in exile.
Can you pray believing God when all hope seems lost? If you can, you can pray a great prayer!
Notice what “great and incomprehensible things” God showed him in chapter 33. In Jeremiah 33:7 God promised a return from captivity, and in 33:15 God promised a Messiah: “In those days and at that time I will cause a Righteous Branch to sprout up for David…” God always does more than we can imagine.
So let us pray great prayers to our great God!