Thursday, April 30, 2015

Evil Has To Go

From the time you are a little kid you are aware, at least on some level, that evil exists. Either your parents let you watch Sleeping Beauty movies and you learned who Maleficent was, or you started reading the papers, or even you grew up with siblings and you felt at least a form of evil when your brother’s fist made contact with your nose.

But it usually takes people a long time to want to fight evil. Mostly we just want it to go away. And we want to be protected, safe and secure. And for children that is their primary need and completely understandable.

And then there comes the day when as an adult you realize you are called on to stand up against evil. You hear the Edmund Burke quote that says “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” And it hits you that you want to be a good man or a good woman. I know I want to stand up against evil and not let it have its way in my life or in anyone else’s. I want to resist. I am outraged by evil and am unwilling to accept it or let it succeed. Exploitation of our children! Oppression of human beings! Atrocities against women! Injustice of every kind! Many feel as I. “Do not go gentle into that good night / Rage, rage against the dying of the light” … Dylan Thomas. Many of us read the news and think the light of justice is dying in this world.

Our very outrage at evil provides a clue for us. There is a reason for our visceral response to evil. It's because of who made us. We operate every day with a standard of goodness by which we judge this world with its defects. And when we use this almost universal measuring stick we recognize how profoundly lacking the reality we see every day is compared to this standard.

Pain is not just theoretical for us. It is real and it is physical! When our little child is hurt by our failure and they look at us through tears and say: “Why did you hurt me so bad?” or ‘How could you let this happen?” as parents we suddenly experience very real and personal pain. What we realize is that evil not only happens halfway around the world but sometimes happens to people we know and who are very close to us. And it is then that we can no longer leave it in the theoretical but must make it personal, and to decide if we will fight against it, and how.

The primary place where evil exists is within the tragedies and failures of human history. To clarify, some tragedies are outside of human control. When we see a tsunami or an Ebola epidemic we realize these constitute tragedies involving precious human life but they are not borne of evil. When I speak here of evil it is that which is concocted and planned in the human heart. Evil often feels like it will triumph over good. Good seems like delicate stemware and evil feels like an earthquake rattling and rumbling and destroying all of what is good.

The very best things in life come to us through our families, but so do the very worst. The greatest good of all is love and nothing seems more fragile and tender than love. Nothing is more easily broken than trust. Nothing is more easily disappointed than hope.

Perhaps if we look at how Jesus dealt with evil we can learn. He said ‘do not be overcome with evil but overcome evil with good’. How did He do this? Jesus’ simple answer was in one word . . . forgiveness. Forgiveness admits that evil is evil. But it effectively separates the sinner and the sin and sets the sinner free. And for the one who has committed evil, it helps that person to turn from the evil and say they are sorry to their victim also and this allows release from evil and its power to destroy your own soul.

The laws of logic would appear to prevent God from being both just and merciful at the same time. But God solved this difficult dilemma on Calvary. Full justice was done: sin was punished. The weight of the entire human race’s sin debt fell on Christ’s body. But mercy and forgiveness were also enacted. The answer was for God to give us the mercy and give Christ the justice. And Jesus was willing for this to happen. In fact He took much joy in it. Jesus’ perfect sacrifice on our behalf separated the sin from the sinner. This allowed sin to receive its punishment in the person of Jesus and at the same time allows sinners to receive mercy and forgiveness in our own selves. Are you blown away by this mercy extended to us?

The legal requirements of evil were dealt with when Christ died on the cross. He paid for all the evil that had ever been done or even thought about. And it was done fairly in that the gift of being exonerated from our crimes was extended to every human being. Everyone! No matter what we did. What’s required for us, the evil doers is to personally accept Christ’s gift of eternal life that separated our sin from us the sinners. We are given the amazing gift that allows us to turn from our sins and our failures and the very worst things we have ever done. And by believing in the power of this gift, in the truth of what Jesus accomplished on our behalf, we become new people. It is almost too big to wrap our minds around.

It just happens to be true. Evil got conquered on the cross by Christ. Now we get to live like totally new people. Because the truth is…we are.

Evil Has To Go!

There is a love that does not abuse and does not exploit. It does not abandon or reject. It does not lie or cheat. This Love is faithful, pure, and true . . . perfect to the end. His name is Jesus.

Mark Phelps

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Where Was God?

Over the years I have been asked “where was God in all your abuse?” It is a legitimate question. And one I have thought about a lot. It’s been said that three of the most important questions in one’s life are who God is, who you are, and who you are in relationship to God. My answers to those three questions are critical to the way I understand where God was in my abuse.

For my growing up years I didn’t really think about God much at all as it related to my father abusing me. My father, as far as I can tell, spent a lot of time just scaring the heck out of us by talking about all the ways God was judging the world and judging us. My father made sure we were always off kilter and always feeling guilty, always looking over our shoulder for God’s wrath or our father’s. My father instilled constant fear in us and basically I was afraid of God. My sole purpose in life for years was to stay one step ahead of my father and not get caught! Because to get caught by my father meant I was to get beaten. I felt the same way about God. I think our home was truly a cult compound. Maybe more like a prison or work camp. Our entire goal was not to get screamed at or beaten and then to get up the next day and try not to get beaten again.

When I finally escaped the cult I was under the impression, thanks to my father’s weekly preaching on this subject that any who left were going to hell and probably were going to be zapped into a grease spot. So all I cared about for a number of years was to figure out how to live my life. I had gotten very little training in our family on the basics of being an adult. And I hoped God would not zap me into a grease spot as I tried to learn to be an adult.

When I finally began my journey of healing years later part of it happened under the care of some very special guys in a church I was attending. My father had spent years saying everyone else had “gotten it wrong” when it came to God and how to live life. What these men taught me was something very different from what I learned from my father. These men taught me that God loved me and others, with a profound love, and that I was a worthwhile human being who deserved to be shown love and respect and friendship. This was completely foreign to me.

These men were helping me with the answers to all three of these fundamental questions about life as they simply lived out being humble, loving Christians. It honestly about blew my mind as each time I interacted with them I had to “undo” the tapes in my brain where my father had said everybody else in the world was wrong and that God hated everybody. These men hated nobody and were taking the time to reach out to me as a young man, very much in need of a caring father figure.

Over time I began to believe the things these men were telling me. And I dug into the Bible and learned that they were right. That God does indeed have a profound love for people that is akin to the best earthly father you could even dream of and then magnified beyond imagining.

The time I had with these men was wonderful since I was essentially being “deprogrammed” from my father’s brainwashing and hatred. With the truth slowly sinking into my brain I began to think about how God’s love for me was still true during the abuse itself. That was something I hadn’t thought about growing up under my father’s teaching. There was no way I would have concluded there was a loving God who cared very much about me being abused as a little boy, but as an adult man who was in the process of healing the question could not be escaped.

If God loved me how was it possible that He stood on the sidelines and saw me being abused, my mom being abused, and some of my “target” siblings being abused far worse than I ever had. How could His love be reconciled, at all, with the abuse? And for that matter how could any wrong thing that was done on the planet toward people be reconciled with God’s love? How could rape and kidnapping and murder and abuse be reconciled with God’s love for people?

Well, before long I had to come to grips with several important truths. The evil that was being perpetrated in abuse and wrong doing was one human being against another. It was never perpetrated by God. It was just not stopped by Him. So, I had to grapple with the obvious reality of our ability to exercise free will. I believe free will is a gift God gave to people and it is a reflection of who He is.

My father mocked the idea of free will but he was mistaken. (I have no idea how he didn’t see his daily tirades of anger and abuse against the human race as his own exercise of free will!) The Bible clearly states that we are made in God’s image. So anything God gave to us as humans somehow reflects Him. Free will is a powerful gift. It is essentially the ability to call the shots for your own life, to be the author and creator of your own destiny. It is an enormous gift if you think about it. It can be used for tremendous evil, for tremendous good and everything in between. We are given amazing freedom over our own destiny.

The problem with free will is that God just gave it carte blanche to the whole human race. To people raised with loving parents, and to people who grew up on the streets with no moral compass in their lives. It seems God did not attach an owner’s manual with our free will that would have us only making good choices and never bad ones. Well, okay, I might argue the owner’s manual is the Bible, but even then as we all know, people are free to still make choices that hurt people. We see evidence of this in the news every day. As completely free moral agents we can make choices all day long every day that either harm or help, either bring good or bring evil, either value people or devalue people, either honor or dishonor others. The choices are endless and God allows that.

So, are you okay with that? Well a lot of us aren’t when we first start into this subject. We want God never to allow rape or kidnap or murder. And we don’t want anyone to suffer pain or torture. We would simply have God wipe out evil.

Here’s the problem. There is an evil tendency in each of us. We spend our lives trying to convince ourselves this is not so, but if we have lived on this planet we are well aware of the wretched things we think and the wretched things we do . . . on a very regular basis. We may be able to hide our sin and our junk from others for a while. But we can’t hide it from ourselves.

So it occurred to me one day that if God were going to wipe out evil He had to wipe out our free will. ALL of our free wills. And the second He did that humankind would cease to exist. So for Him to get rid of evil He would have to get rid of us! While this is hard to imagine logically there really isn’t a way around that conclusion.

So now back to my abuse. I came to realize the free will of my father was allowed to exist no matter how loud and long he foolishly protested this reality. His free will was allowed to exist to abuse and torture and malign and demean and scream at the 14 of us who my father lived with. And that coupled with a criminal justice and social services system that was not quite ready to deal with my father yet in the 60s and the 70s meant that we in our family had no exit path from the abuse other than to grow up and to leave.

So, did God really love me during my abuse? Yes. I believe with all my heart that He did. And that He was as heartbroken as I was over my father’s exercise of his free will in such a mean, criminal, abusive way.

If any of you who are parents think about your role with your own children, in some ways it is similar to this predicament God has placed Himself in by allowing free will. I think pondering my role as a daddy has given me some new perspective on God Himself as our Father. We parents cannot protect our children from all harm and pain and cruelty as much as we would like to. So when something bad happens to our child and they look up at us with an angry or scared face that says “Dad, why didn’t you protect me from that?” our hearts break. We cannot protect our children from all harm. We do our best, but that is all we can do. What we can offer our children is to be with them THROUGH their lives and their pain. Not to protect but to come alongside. And hang on for as long as it takes. That is a hard realization for any parent, and when God made the world it was probably a hard realization for Him too. And I believe He has intense empathy and compassion for the injustice and pain and abuse that is perpetrated on every single precious child He made.

So how did this help me as I looked back over my abuse? Well it helped me as I thought through the gift of free will. We tend to look only on the downside of free will. We think of war and torture and cruelty and we just want it ended. We don’t tend to think about free will on the upside. The upside could include the beauty of music, the writing of a wonderful book, the creation of the Internet, the making of a vaccine that saved millions or the drawing of a sweet picture by your 3 year old. Free will includes the sum of all the human race has ever done or ever will do. Some people will live selfishly and go for fame and fortune with no concern for their fellow man. Some will behead people and put those deeds on the Internet. Others will climb to amazing heights to help other people to recover from Ebola. All of the deeds of mankind come from our amazing ability to use and direct the free will God gave us.

So, I see free will as a gift. I saw my father exercise his immense gifts and talents in people-crushing ways. What a sad realization that was for me! And I had to live through it and attempt to climb out of the deep hole it made for my life. But, I was also able to exercise my free will to heal, to overcome the desperately sick and wrong things my father taught me and choose to live a different kind of life. I have also chosen to live my life now with God at my side every step of the way. I have raised two amazing daughters with my wife and had a business and been part of wonderful, beautiful opportunities to help people. Just because my father exercised his free will in such reprehensible and ultimately terribly sad ways, does not take away my joy in getting to exercise my free will gift. And I hope the sin and destructiveness of others doesn’t keep you from using your free will in courageous and life giving ways.

I hope as you who have been abused look at your lives you will wrestle with all that has hurt you and especially the way you see God, yourself and your relationship with God. Dig in and stay with it until you find yourself and I hope, find your God. But in the processing I hope you also see your life as a totality. You are far more than the worst abuse that ever happened to you. You are a precious, amazing, beautiful creation of God and He loves you so, so much! And He delights to see the way you exercise your free will. It is yours to use as you see fit. And you can do amazing things with it, amazing things for yourself and for others. Blessings to you in the exercise of it!

Mark Phelps

Friday, April 3, 2015

The Good News Of Jesus Christ

Go into the whole world and proclaim this message: “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.”

What truth is that? Well, I’ll tell you. It’s this: For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son. If we are going to look at what God meant by this, we have to look to why He bothered to give His Son Jesus to the world. But we also have to look to the cross Jesus died on. We have to look at what was essentially the electric chair of the Roman world, the cross. It was a method of torture for the worst criminals. Roman citizens could not be crucified because of the privilege of their citizenship. I want you to look at the cross. Come to the cross. This message of the cross is for everyone. Christ is alive! Of all the things you will ever see or hear, there is only one message that will change people’s lives and hearts. There is a way, if you come by the way of the cross. We receive our freedom purchased by the ransom at the cross.

Wait, ransom? Ransom is an interesting word. Today it mostly means the redemption of a prisoner or slave or goods for the price demanded. An older meaning of the word is a means of deliverance or rescue from punishment for sin, especiallythe payment of a redemptive fine. Actually what Christ did on the cross was a combination of both of those. Each of us was found guilty for sins we have committed and we are required to pay the price for what we have done. When you think about today’s modern climate and the whole thought process behind whether to pay terrorists off to buy back an abducted person you realize the government has to think clearly about whether to ever pay the ransom. In Christ’s case He willingly paid the ransom price without being asked, and the payment? His own death! The ransom price to pay for the whole world.

I want us all to understand the meaning of this cross. Not the cross that hangs on a wall or around someone’s neck but the real cross of Christ. The cross expresses the great love of God for man. It is scarred and blood-stained. His was a rugged cross. His real purpose for coming was to die! I know that many will react with confusion or horror at this message but it is the truth. And with all my heart I want to leave you with the truth that happened on this cross. With the life of Jesus hanging on that cross God said “I love you! I love you! I have loved you with an everlasting love!” He loves you and he is willing to forgive you of all sins.

On our churches we have a cross. It’s embossed on our Bibles. It’s an ornament that we wear around our necks, Christians and non-Christians. Research shows that objects that are a regular part of our lives begin to lose their impact on us as symbols when we look at them all the time. And apparently it happens with crosses, too, if we are not careful to keep their symbolism and meaning very alive. I have wondered, since the cross is a symbol of torture and execution if what we should do is rotate our necklaces and symbols with other methods of execution once in a while. So sometimes we should wear electric chairs and sometimes we should have tools of beheading. Other times we should wear a noose. Okay, I’ve said this to make a point and I’m not sure I’m really suggesting this, but I want us to talk about the meaning of the cross till we understand it.

But when we talk about the depth and the real meaning of the cross it becomes an offense! Why is that? The cross is offensive because it confronts people. What it confronts us with is our sin problem and, it is a confrontation that all of us must face. Our sin problem is that our sin has to be paid for in this moral world we live in. Christ died on the cross to pay for our sin but He doesn’t force that gift on us. We have to individually choose to respond to and accept that gift. It is a beautiful gift that will impact our entire eternity but we have to accept it. God is a gentleman always and He will not force that gift on anyone.

We are people with different backgrounds and we have various needs. And we are all objects of God’s mighty love, to the point that he gave his son, his only son to die upon a cross. The cross was the most terrible form of execution by the Romans for criminals. And Jesus endured all that in our place because of our sins. We deserved the cross. We deserve hell. We deserve judgment and all that that means.

I know there are many people who dispute this. People do not want to hear that they are sinners. To many people it is offensive. The cross is offensive because it directly confronts the evils that dominate so much of this world. You see the Bible teaches that all of us have done wrong. We have all gone astray. We’ve everyone turned to our own way of doing things, even if it is at someone else’s expense. And when we turn to our own way we go astray from God’s way. And that includes the whole human race. Every one of us, the 7.2 billion souls that are now alive, have turned away from God.

And that is why the world is in such terrible danger right now. It’s not dangerous so much because we have atomic bombs. It’s dangerous because of the human heart behind the bombs. Hearts filled with hatred, envy, strife, greed, lust and all the other things that could pull the trigger.

One reason the cross is offensive to people is because it demands. It doesn’t suggest. It demands a new life style in all of us. Sin is a disease in the human heart. It affects the mind and the will and the emotions. Every part of our being is affected by this disease. How can we break this bondage? How can we be set free? God helps us break those chains. The Bible says: “If any man is in Christ he is a new creature. Old things pass away. Everything becomes new.” Christ can make you a totally new person. It sounds inviting and it sounds impossible. But it is the most real invitation you will ever get. From a God who can back up His promise.

On that cross God was laying our sins on Jesus. Christ’s crucifiers not only put nails in his hands but before that they had scourged him. A Roman scourge was a terrible thing. They took whips embedded with little pieces of glass and stone pellets on those whips and beat a person almost to death. And then they took an extremely heave cross and made him carry it which in his weakened condition was almost impossible. Jesus was finally assisted by someone who a guard ordered to do the carrying or he might not have made it to a place outside of Jerusalem. And then they put nails in his hands.

If you decide to Google the mechanics of crucifixion you will find it to be true torture. The victim finally is asphyxiated because he can’t get enough air in his lungs. But even that was not the real suffering. The real suffering is when God’s anger toward sin was poured down on Christ’s head. In the Bible it says (Matthew 27) that the earth turned dark for three solid hours while God was pouring down the punishment for sin on Jesus’ body. You can feel some of Jesus’ anguish in this ordeal when he said: “My God my God why have you forsaken me!?” In that terrible moment he and God the Father were separated.

Not long after Jesus made that statement his life on this earth was going to end. But, I want to take a station break and talk about what happened RIGHT at the moment He died. It amazes me every time I read it. Here’s how it happened.

“At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people.

When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, ‘Surely he was the Son of God!’”

I don’t know about you but I think I would have liked to have been one of those guards. And be there to watch people pop out of tombs and walk around. Every time I read this passage I think of God the Father watching the whole thing and being incredibly proud of His Son having giving such an amazing gift to mankind. Call me a goof, but I can’t help but wonder if the Father couldn’t help Himself in His joy over what had just happened that he had to raise a few people from the dead to show people how real His Son was! And that believing in His Son was going to have earth shattering consequences in their lives not unlike tombs opening up! I really think He did it to give us hope for our futures. And hope for right now. Wander through Matthew 27 in the Bible sometime if you want some encouragement.

What still amazes me in all this is that Christ was a willing victim. Christ willingly shed his blood. A decision made before time began that Jesus would live as a human being and die for all mankind was accomplished in that willing act. And the shedding of that blood carries with it God’s very life. The shedding of Christ’s blood is the meeting place between God and man. The Bible says without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness. And that is what Christ was doing on the cross. He was essentially paying reparations to God for our sins.

Jesus did a lot on that cross the day he gave his life for mankind. He was paying for rape, and murder, and torture and kidnapping and human trafficking and heinous crimes but he was also paying for mean spiritedness and selfishness and petty things that we think, say and do every day. He paid for it all. What Christ accomplished on the death row of all humankind was to offer us forgiveness for all we had done and even would do in the future. It was the greatest single action with the greatest consequence of all time. The cross and the resurrection of Christ offer forgiveness of sins. It offers a whole new life and actually offers you eternal life if you come to the cross by turning from your former direction away from God and by an act of faith turning toward Him and accepting His amazing gift.

There is no other way to be saved from the consequences of our own sin except through the cross of Christ. We actually have no ability to make this payment on our own, much as we might like to. The plan that the Father and His Son, Jesus, came up with before time ever began was that Jesus would pay for our sin through human sacrifice. Him! The God/man. Jesus said: “I am the way, the truth and the life. No man comes to the Father but by me”. The only way to the Father; Father God; is through His son Jesus Christ.

Now why Jesus? He’s the only one who was born into this world without sin, but more than that He was the only righteous one. The Father wanted someone without sin to pay for the sins of the whole world and the only human who has ever existed who filled that bill was Jesus. And when you come to him and accept His gift of eternal life (yours to accept or reject!) you become clothed in his righteousness. Another way to explain that is that God now looks at you the way He sees Christ. And since Christ is sinless and without even a blemish on His soul, guess what? That is how God sees you! Squeaky clean and beautifully new! God no longer sees your sin, he no longer sees your own heart, he sees Jesus’ heart. But with your beautiful new heart all wrapped up in Jesus.

Now I don’t understand everything about how this all works. There are many things about the cross and about salvation/us being rescued that I do not understand. And I am not told by God that I have to understand it all. I’m told by Him that I need just a mustard seed’s worth of faith (a really small seed!) to believe. And the best thing is anybody can believe! This gift is open to all! A blind man can believe. A deaf man can believe. An old person can believe. A young person can believe and that word ‘believe’ means commit. I commit my life totally to him.

Jesus Christ from the cross says: “I will save you! I will forgive you! I will change you! I will make you a new person if you come to the cross by repentance/turning away and faith.” Come to Christ!

When you come to Christ you come by the way of repentance. To repent means to change, to turn from your sins and turn to Jesus Christ and say: “I’m a sinner, I need forgiveness and I know that you are the only one that can change me”. You will eventually see your life change, but this is a process that the Lord assists you with every step of the way. He does NOT leave you in your own mess without a way of escape from a lifestyle that for many of us was in real opposition to His ways.

The Bible says that in spite of our rebellion and rejection God loves us. And actually He always has. From before the world and time even began. He loves us so much that He gave his son to die for our sins. And when Christ died on that cross he became guilty of lying, he became guilty of slander, he became guilty of jealousy, and he became guilty of the filthiest dirty sins. Jesus lived the life I could not live and he died the death I should have died. Christ took the hell that you and I deserve in to his own body.

Now God said: ‘Receive Him! Believe in Him! Put your trust and your confidence in Him and I will forgive your sins and I will guarantee you eternity in heaven. It’s all yours and it’s all free. All you have to do is receive it.”

Today I’m asking you to put your trust in Christ. I’m going to ask you to pray this prayer, sentence by sentence as you read along on the page here. “Dear Heavenly Father I know that I’m a sinner and I ask for your forgiveness. I believe your Son died for my sins and rose from the dead. I turn from my sins. I repent of my sins. I invite you to come into my heart and life. I want to trust and follow you as my Lord and Savior. In Jesus name, Amen.”

He’s alive! I’ve given my life, not to a dead Christ, but to a living Christ. And he’s given me a song to sing. I have reason for existence. When I prayed this prayer it was as though the God of the whole universe had shown up. And the first thing I noticed was that he is so good and so holy and so wonderful, too wonderful for words.

I know where I’ve come from. I know why I’m here. I know where I’m going. Do you?

God loves you!

For God so loved the World

That he gave his one and only son

That whoever believes in him

Shall not perish

But have eternal life

John 3:16

Mark Phelps