Jesus, Forgiveness, and Suicide

The other day, while counseling students at the school after the tragic and unfortunate suicide of Dalton Skeens, I was asked whether a person could go to heaven who committed suicide.  This is a much more exhaustive answer to that question.

The Bible does not address the subject of suicide directly.  

First, I will start by debunking a false idea that floats around.  Sometimes suicide gets labeled as the unforgivable sin (Mark 3:22-30, Matthew 12:22-32).  "Whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin" [Mark 3:29 (ESV)].  The context shines light on what this means.  After Jesus healed a demon-possessed man, the Scribes and the Pharisees who were out to get him claimed that Jesus was in league with Satan.  Blaspheming the Holy Spirit is to claim that an act that you know is from God is from Satan.  The unforgivable sin has nothing to do with suicide.  
I like what the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches on suicide.
Everyone is responsible for his life before God who has given it to him. It is God who remains the sovereign Master of life. We are obliged to accept life gratefully and preserve it for his honor and the salvation of our souls. We are stewards, not owners, of the life God has entrusted to us. It is not ours to dispose of.

Suicide contradicts the natural inclination of the human being to preserve and perpetuate his life. It is gravely contrary to the just love of self. It likewise offends love of neighbor because it unjustly breaks the ties of solidarity with family, nation, and other human societies to which we continue to have obligations. Suicide is contrary to love for the living God.

If suicide is committed with the intention of setting an example, especially to the young, it also takes on the gravity of scandal. Voluntary co-operation in suicide is contrary to the moral law.
Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide.

We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance (2280-2283a).
In the end, the only thing that prevents people from going to heaven is not knowing Jesus.  It seems kind of strange, but it's like going to an invitation-only party without the invitation.  Hopefully, the guy that invited us will be at the door, but we don't know that he will be.  We have all been invited, but we need to bring the invitation.  

But it's more significant than that.  Jesus claimed to be "the way, and the truth, and the life."  He followed that up by saying, "No one comes to the Father except through me" [John 14:6-7 (ESV)].  It is through him that we receive forgiveness of our sins.  At the very core of the message of Jesus is that we are all sinners.  This sin separates us from the presence of God because God is holy and only allows the purified into his presence.  God became flesh in the form of Jesus to show us how to live and offer the perfect sacrifice for our sins that when accepted, covers our filthiness in holiness.  We accept that forgiveness through giving our life over to him.  He is the way, the truth, and the life.  He is worth living for.
Jesus taught, “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep [John 10:7-11 (ESV)]. 
The thief comes to steal and kill and destroy, but Jesus came so that we might live an abundant life.  Committing suicide is an act of theft, murder, and destruction.  However, that does not mean that committing suicide is unforgivable.  It just puts us face-to-face with a grace that is bigger than we can comprehend.  The grace of God expressed through Jesus is bigger than the greatest sins that we can think of.  

We just need to realize that no setback is to big too overcome.  We need to follow Jesus and live in the hope and the knowledge that life goes on no matter what the circumstances.  Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans, "There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus" [Romans 8:1 (ESV)].  What kind of grace would grace be if we were condemned to hell when we died while committing a sin?  The grace we receive from God covers all past, present, and future sins.  One might feel that this gives us a license to sin, but exactly the opposite happens when you experience this grace.  It isn't a license to sin; it's a freedom to live. 

God's grace is big enough for suicide, but God's plan for your life is so much greater than the permanent setbacks that emotionally engulf you.  There is always another change that can be made and another road to go down.  Don't give up.  We serve a God of hope. 

Let your steadfast love, O Lord, be upon us,even as we hope in you.
                       Psalms 33:22 (ESV)

Crises of Belief

Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me."  That's a tough teaching.  Most of us who have a heart for people who do not know Jesus wish that this was not the case, but no amount of wishing changes the truth laid out by Jesus.  He claimed to be the only way to God.  

But believing is hard at times.  I have found it more difficult to believe at certain times in my life.  When my grandmother died, when I became disillusioned with the way the church operates, and when we lost our twins were all critical points that greatly challenged my faith.  The first one led to me straying in a spiritual wilderness during my high school years.  The second kicked off my greatest adult crisis in the faith.  One in which I nearly stopped following Jesus.  And the third caused me to doubt whether God really does take care of those who follow Him.  

And I am not alone in struggling with my faith at times.  We all find it difficult to believe at critical points in our life.  As we mature in the faith, the challenge to our faith that different crises cause are different.  No longer are we tempted to discard the faith, but we will use our supreme spiritual intellect and morph the faith just a little to appease our sensibilities.  We stray from the teachings of Scripture and start to construct a God that is palatable.  In doing so, we lose the faith one small step at a time.

Ask a rancher how a cow gets lost, and chances are he will reply, “Well, the cow starts nibbling on a tuft of green grass, and when it finishes, it looks ahead to the next tuft of green grass, and when it finishes, it looks ahead to the next tuft of green grass and starts nibbling on that one, and then it nibbles on a tuft of grass right next to a hole in the fence. It then sees another tuft of green grass on the other side of the fence, so it nibbles on that one and then goes on to the next tuft. The next thing you know, the cow has nibbled itself into being lost.”

Those who claim to follow Jesus must hold tightly to what we claim to believe because it is easy to stray away.  Like the cow just nibbling on the next tuft of green grass, we don't even realize we are wandering.

I read through the book of Hebrews and noted all that the author of Hebrews wrote that we are to believe if we claim to be followers of Jesus.

We should believe:
  • God exists
  • God rewards those who seek him.
  • Jesus died to make us right with God.
  • Jesus now rules at the right hand of God.
  • Jesus knows how we should live.
And these beliefs are not just some intellectual pie in the sky thoughts.  These beliefs, when truly believed, shape how we live.

Our belief in the these teachings
  • allow us to enter into the presence of God.
  • give us the confidence to keep the faith.
  • enable us to encourage one another on toward love and good deeds.
  • empower us with the boldness to live in the spiritual reality even when our physical reality tells us otherwise. 
In the movie Henry Poole Is Here there is a scene where Henry Poole, played by Luke Wilson, is faced with a woman who believes.  Henry Poole is given a fatal diagnosis and sentimentally moves back to the neighborhood where he grew up.  But the neighborhood interrupts his peaceful demise.  A picture of Jesus starts appearing on his outside wall.  Henry thinks it is just a mark made form water, but his neighbor, Esperanza, believes it is miraculous.  But then his six-year-old child, who has not talked since her father left the house over a year ago, touches the picture on the wall and starts talking.  This scene picks up after that miracle. 

For those who didn't watch the scene above, here is how it goes.
Henry asks, "Why is it so important to you that something like that could happen?...I'll tell you.  Because if you can convince me, then suddenly your beliefs become more real.  Right?...So until you get me to swallow your world and believe what you believe, you'll never have the kind of faith that you want to have.  You'll always have a little bit of doubt.  You'll never know if you're quite right.  You'll always be kind of wondering if it is real.  You'll always be sitting over there waiting for that man to come waltzing back in from the dead.  And that's sad.  That's really sad."

Esperanza replies, "I'm just trying to help."

If we believe in Jesus, we will be accused of many of the things that Henry Poole accused Esperanza of.  This is painful because, like Esperanza, we know that our beliefs will help people.  We don't share what we believe out of ulterior motives.  We share what we believe because we  truly believe that people will be helped if they believe the same things.

Don't make the mistake of confusing "believe" with "pretend."  If you have ever been to Disney, you would have also been inundated with their slogan, "believe."  I was confused with what they really wanted me to believe in.  Was I to believe hat Jack Sparrow is real?  Was I to believe that my toys really do walk around my room, play, and have dangerous crises when I am not there?  Am I to believe that I can be some special princess by buying a costume and wearing it around my house? (I bet you would like to see that.)  It's fun to pretend those things (well, except for me in the costume).  I have no problem with pretending, but belief is much more than pretending.  Pretending is just fun; believing is the foundational core of who we are. 

So if  you're reading this and struggling with the faith, I challenge you to believe that God exists, God rewards those who seek him, Jesus died to make us right with God, Jesus now rules at the right hand of God, Jesus knows how we should live.  He is faithful and just, and will honor your perseverance through the tough times.  It might seem strange at times, but believing those foundational thoughts will lead you to living a more fulfilling life.

"Without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him" [Hebrews 11:6 (ESV)].

Jesus vs. Paul - The Debate Over the Gospel

Scot McKnight wrote an article trying to take a new approach to bridge the divide in the Christian community between those who teach Jesus' gospel of the kingdom versus the Paul's gospel of justification: Jesus vs. Paul.  For those who are Pauline, the focus is completely on justification.  For the other camp, the gospel is about the kingdom of God.

Paul's teachings on justification are often pitted against Jesus' teachings of the kingdom.  This does an injustice to Paul's writings.  Paul directly mentions the kingdom fourteen times, but for some that is not substantial enough.  Along with the direct references, the kingdom is alluded to through other imagery.  When Paul mentions "Christ", he is indirectly referencing the kingdom.  Jesus, in being called the Christ, is being proclaimed the messiah and ruler of the Old Testament kingdom of Israel.  He is the ruler who will reign forever. So Paul might not mention "kingdom" explicitly enough for the Paulinites, but why should he?  He is writing to churches filled with people already in the kingdom who should be able to pick up the kingdom imagery, especially after having been taught the Gospels.  Paul's letters were not written to tell people who Jesus was; they were written to specific churches for specific purposes.  

McKnight makes this debate between the teachings of Jesus and Paul more complicated than it needs to be.  Although he is not alone in that.  He attempts to reconcile John Piper's view of justification against N.T. Wright's view, of whom he does not mention.  These two have been going at it for a while now.  In 2007, Piper wrote an entire book directly attacking the thoughts of N.T. Wright:  The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright.  Wright responded in 2009 with Justification: God's Plan & Paul's Vision.  

Paul's and Jesus' teachings don't have to be at odds with one another.  How do we enter the kingdom? Through justification. What is the purpose of justification? To bring about God's kingdom here on earth. They don't conflict. You cannot have one without the other.  Nor do we have to shoehorn justification into kingdom theology; it naturally fits.   But we must be careful, because Jesus' teachings of the kingdom do not easily fit into an individualized justification theology.

The more I have been reading and teaching Paul writings, the more I am falling in love with them. His writings do not conflict with the good news of the kingdom; they elaborate how to live out the life one should live as a citizen of the kingdom. The problem with most teaching on Paul occurs when people take a single verse or section and go nuts on it rather than take the whole book and focus on its larger point.

Even in Galatians, one of the Paul's books on justification, he wrote that people who live by the flesh will not inherit the kingdom of God. (Galatians 5:21).

1 Corinthians 15, the section that McKnight references in his article as Paul's gospel, does mention the "kingdom" in 15:24. McKnight just stopped his discussion of Paul's teaching of the gospel before getting there.  I guess Paul is expected to be concise. 

It appears that Paul wrote his letters to the Galatians and the Romans to explain justification. Justification is not a thought that pervades his other letters. It baffles me why having a few letters explaining justification somehow pits Paul against Jesus.  There should be nothing wrong with explaining how we are justified. That's good to know, but that does not counteract all of the teachings of Jesus on the kingdom.

McKnight chose to go to Paul's definition of the gospel, but I prefer to start with Jesus' gospel. The good news, according to Jesus, was the kingdom. It seems simple. I guess I might just oversimplify it. But the purpose of our justification is to be the kingdom.

N.T. Wright wrote in Justification: God's Plan & Paul's Vision:
Yes, say the scoffers, ethnic divisions are broken down, we know that, but why make such a fuss about it? The answer is that the church, thus united through the grace of God in the death of Jesus, is the sign to the principalities and powers that their time is up. Ephesians is not about the ordering of the church by the gospel for its own sake. "Ecclesiology" may sound secondary and irrelevant to some ardent enthusiasts for the old perspective, but that could just be because they are unwilling to face the consequences of Paul's ecclesiology. For him, the church is constituted, and lives its life in public, in such a way as to confront the rulers of the world with the news that there is "another king named Jesus" (Acts 17:7). Paul says it again: this was the grace given to me, this was the mystery revealed which I became a servant, the mystery lodged since all eternity in the creator's single plan: "that now the many-splendored wisdom of God might be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places, through the church, according to the eternal purpose which he has accomplished int he Messiah, Jesus our Lord" (Ephesians 3:10-11). How can "ecclesiology" be a secondary topic, unworthy to be associated with the great doctrine of justification, when Scripture itself gives this high a place? Why should not the point of justification itself be precisely this, that, in constituting the church as the single family who are a sign to the powers that Jesus is Lord and the they are not, it servers directly the mission of the kingdom of God in the world? It cannot be, can it, that part of the old perspective's reaction to the new is the tacit sense that once we associate ecclesiology with the very center of the gospel we will have to go all the way and rethink the political role and task of the church? Surely the wonderful "objective" scholarship of so many old perspective exponents would not allow such a motive to affect exegesis! And yet: Luther's "two kingdoms" theology may have more bearing on this than we might like to think. Not to mention the deep resistance, in some of the same circles where the old perspective still flourishes, to any attempt to articulate a gospel-based "kingdom" theology to complement and illuminate Paul's soteriology." (173-174)
Wright went on:
There seems to be something about the joining together of resurrection and justification which some of our Western traditions have failed to grasp. Justification is more than simply the remitting and forgiving of sins, vital and wonderful though that is. It is the declaration that those who believe in Jesus are part of the resurrection-based single family of the one Creator God. Any preaching of justification which focuses solely or even mainly on Jesus' death and its results is only doing half the job. Justification is not just about "how I get my sins forgiven." It is about how God creates, in the Messiah Jesus and in the power of his Spirit, a single family, celebrating their once-for-all forgiveness and their assured "no condemnation" in Christ, through whom his purposes can now be extended into the wider world. All this, of course, might have been clear from a reading of the Gospels, but, alas, the same Western tradition that has highlighted the cross at the expense of Paul's full theology of resurrection has also highlighted a supposed Pauline soteriology at the expense of the Gospels' theology of the kingdom of God." (248)

How to Lead by Consensus

Taken from Kenneth Gangel’s Feeding and Leading (195-198)

Each member has one voice
            It’s not a vote.  It’s a voice. 

Each member has a responsibility to express his or her opinion
            “Not a week later!  Not out in a parking lot after the meeting!  Not in a whisper to the person next to him!  Carefully, lovingly, clearly, and gently in the meeting where all the concerned, interdependent decision-makers have gathered to deal with the issue!”

Each member must listen respectfully to all other options
            “Nobody has a corner on God’s truth—not the chairman and not the pastor…We’re seeking the mind of the Spirit of God as He gives each one of us wisdom; and we know truth could come from anyone (remember the disciples discounting Mary’s record of the resurrection of Jesus.)”

Each member must detach himself emotionally from his own ideas
            “The mature person can suggest an idea, ‘place it on the table,’ and deliberately allow his fellow decision-makers to weigh it, evaluate it, attack it, build on it, and take it in different directions because that is precisely his role as a member of the decision-making group.  When they attack his idea he understands full well they are not attacking him.”

Each member must publicly support the group’s decision.
            “Consensus does not mean total unanimity.  It means that a group of people operating in informed, spiritual accountability has made a decision which they will now present to the larger group of people who have authorized them to make that decision.”

Each member must keep group processes confidential.

Mitch Daniels and Baby Boomers

Mitch Daniels, the governor of Indiana, wowed the crowd at CPAC.  It's a good speech worth listening to.

Here's a quote from him at Butler University's Commencement in 2009.  Please note that he is a baby boomer.
Today, if you are thinking about standing on the shoulders of the past generation, I'd say "Please don't."...What I mean to suggest is that you take into the world the values written on the locker room wall at Hinkle, which are not much at all like those associated with the Baby Boom.  That you live for others, not just yourselves.  For fulfillment, not just pleasure and material gain.  For tomorrow, and the Americans who will reside there, not just for today.  That song I mentioned ends with the refrain, "And don't worry 'bout tomorrow, hey, hey, hey." When it comes on oldies radio, please, tune it out.  Do worry 'bout tomorrow, in a way your elders often failed to do.

Book Review - Larry Osborne's Sticky Church

Larry Osborne's Sticky Church is a book about designing and implementing small groups in your church that work.  His church has been doing the same model of small groups for decades with around 80% participation.

It is a great book on small groups, but beyond that, it would not be a recommended read.

Let me hit on some the highlights.  We should never mimic another church's ministries because they are successful.  He spends a chapter explaining the hindrance to the small group movement that the American churches have faced because many churches have modeled their small groups David Yonggi Cho's church in South Korea. There are specific cultural reasons why Cho's model works in South Korea yet fails to gain traction here in America.  "The best way to make sure a model is transferable to your situation is to ask yourself whether you would go to that church if you lived in that town."

Another warning is that we expect too much out of the people in our church.  "As a rule of thumb, most people will participate in only two time slots a week. No matter what that third meeting is for or when it takes place, it's hard to get anyone to show up." Despite being well-intentioned, when we create more ministry options, we wind up creating competition for our own ministries.  We need to focus on what we want people to get involved in and not give so many options. "We...knew that if given the choice, many people would pick the ministry they enjoyed the most, not the ministry they needed the most." It got me thinking because our small, rural church seems to offer more programs than this church of thousands.

Small groups are not designed to grow and divide.  In Cho's model, small groups are the evangelistic tool of the church; however, Osborne argues that does not work in America and works in South Korea due to specific cultural elements. Growing and dividing will work for a short time, but it will cause the groups to fizzle out in a few years and need to be reengineered.  And the congregation will never buy into them again.  This is due to people getting relationships burnout or already having a fill of too many relationships. The purpose of Osbourne's small groups is to create "significant and sticky relationships." He talks about groups that have been together for decades. They are a testament to Christian life together. He argues that we will run into problems when we try to have small groups fill every need rather than focus on the need of building significant and lasting relationships.  Instead of filling every need, they will fill no needs.