Three Trees

The Beauty of Biblical Symbolism

One of the many things I love about Scripture is the symbolism stretched across its pages. It’s everywhere. Of course, it’s all meant to conjure imagery and teach lessons within lessons. Almost every story in the Bible contains a message within a lesson within another moral. I realize we can get carried away and start imagining things that aren’t actually there. We might extract beliefs that aren’t divinely intended without careful consideration, which can be dangerous. And many of my friends are understandably wary of focusing too much on biblical symbolism. I get that. However, avoiding biblical symbolism altogether robs us of vast, awe-inspiring realms of beauty that God intended for us to experience.

The Juxtaposition of Jesus’ Rhetoric

One thing many anti-symbolists forget is that Jesus alternated between straightforward and intensely parabolic teachings. What is a parable exactly? It uses imagery, stories, and symbols to illustrate a moral truth. Jesus is perhaps best known for His use of parables. And they weren’t always immediately understandable because the parables were peppered with prophetic meanings. Quite literally, many of the implications of the parables could not be understood because they weren’t intended to be comprehended at that moment. Like full-fledged prophecy, many parables only made sense in the future as events unfolded. It shouldn’t be surprising that Jesus interacted this way because God has always used signs, symbols, parables, types, and shadows in His communication with us. For example, when God rebuked Satan in the Garden after The Fall, He spoke cryptically: “And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel” (Genesis 3:15).

The First Good News

Genesis 3:15 is sometimes referred to as the “first good news” because it’s the first foretelling of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. God announced that a male descendant—He—would someday deal the serpent (meaning Satan) a fatal blow. The New Testament writers understood Jesus Christ to have fulfilled this prophecy (Hebrews 2:14, 1 John 3:8). In an extended sense, the New Testament also indicates that God would work through the Church—those indwelt by the Spirit of Christ—to destroy the works of the Devil (Romans 16:20).

The Significance of Symbolism

It’s worth considering why God would employ so much symbolism throughout Scripture. As best I can tell, there are three reasons: One, because Satan does not know the future, prophecy is purposefully vague to keep Satan confused. Two, if humanity knew the exact details of future events, we might be tempted to help them along when we need to get out of the way. Three, it builds faith when humans look back through the lens of history and see the puzzle pieces clicking into place.

The uninformed might assume the Bible is a carefully orchestrated body of literature. Perhaps, like an epic Tolkein novel, all the little loose ends are skillfully tied up in the mind of a genius for our consumption. However, the Bible is a library of individual books, with over thirty-three inspired writers spanning 1,500 years, written in different places, cultures, millennia, and perspectives. The only constant across the Bible’s pages is God’s inspiration. It would have been impossible, unthinkable, and unmanageable for mere humans to coordinate such a thing without the divine breath of God.

Therefore, when we see various symbols popping up throughout the inspired Book, we see glimpses of the marvelous mind of God. The magnificent consistency of eternal Truth peeks out from Genesis to Revelation offering fresh illuminations of ancient revelations. And while we should be careful not to build beliefs entirely on symbolism, it certainly can reinforce clearly defined doctrines. Powerful inspiration comes from recognizing that these symbols come from God’s throne, not men’s mere imaginations.

A Tale of Three Trees

It’s no exaggeration to say that trees are necessary for life to exist. They suck carbon dioxide out of the air and release the oxygen we need to breathe. Historically, trees have provided food, shelter, energy, sustenance, biodiversity, beauty, and soil preservation. We literally cannot survive without what trees provide for us daily. It’s also not an exaggeration to say a single tree was at the center of the utter destruction of God’s original created world.

Tree One: The Tree of the Knowledge of Good & Evil

And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die (Genesis 2:16-17).

In God’s interaction with Adam, He begins by offering a level of freedom that you and I have never seen or experienced. “Of every tree,” He said, “thou mayest freely eat.” Adam had unparalleled autonomy to do as he pleased. He had comfort, ease, authority, abundance, creativity, beauty, and eternality. The nature of God was to lead with freedom before establishing the first human law. This almost imperceptible detail allows us to glimpse the goodness of God towards humanity. We tend to view God’s laws as burdensome without taking the time to appreciate the freedoms God provides. God’s privileges and benefits far outweigh the weight of the laws He levies upon us. We also think it would be easier serving God if we had fewer rules and regulations. However, humanity’s first sin proves that God’s rules aren’t the problem. The frailty of our flesh and the pervasiveness of evil are the problems. The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was not evil by its nature. There was nothing wicked about the tree. To claim this would imply that God created something evil, which would contradict Genesis 1:31. The tree was not the source of sin; humanity was. The tree didn’t contribute to man’s sinfulness beyond providing him with an opportunity to obey or disobey.

In Jewish tradition, the Tree of Knowledge and the eating of its fruit represents the beginning of the mixture of good and evil together. Before that time, the two were separate, and evil had only a nebulous existence in potential. While free choice did exist before eating the fruit, evil existed as an entity separate from the human psyche, and it was not in human nature to desire it. Eating and internalizing the forbidden fruit changed this, and thus was born the yetzer hara, the evil inclination. The closest comparison we have is the sadness of watching a child lose the sweet innocence of youth. No wonder Jesus commands us to be “born again” (John 3:5-7). It also sheds light on Jesus’ mysterious charge, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:1-5).

In Rashi’s notes on Genesis 3:3, the first sin came about because Eve added an additional clause to the divine command: “Neither shall you touch it.” By saying this, Eve added to God’s command and thereby came to detract from it, as it is written: “Do not add to His Words” (Proverbs 30:6). However, evil already existed in the heart of Lucifer. Adam and Eve’s first sin offended God in three ways: One, by rejecting God’s authority (we typically call that rebellion). Two, by distorting His instructions (His holy Word). Three, probably most offensive to God, by accepting Satan’s influence. All subsequent sins follow that same threefold pattern of offense against God.

Tree Two: The Cross on Golgotha’s Hill

Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed (1 Peter 2:24).

Because a tree became the symbol of condemnation looming before humanity in constant judgment. It’s fitting that a tree roughly formed into a cross by sinful hands would become the universal symbol of hope and salvation. In His infinite foreknowledge, God knew that He would become the sacrifice for our sins. Furthermore, God formed the tree that would become His mode of execution. When Lucifer slithered into Eve’s presence and convinced her to taste the fruit of the Forbidden Tree, he couldn’t have known that the mind of God had already formed the tree that would become crucial to the remedy. Only God can so thoroughly turn things around in such a beautifully poetic way.

Tree Three: The Tree of Life

22 And the LORD God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever: 23 Therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken. 24 So he drove out the man, and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubim’s, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life (Genesis 3:22-24).

Contrary to popular belief, the Tree of Life did not predate God. The Tree of Life received its life-sustaining properties from the Lord: “And out of the ground made the Lord God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden…” (Genesis 2:9). Mankind lost the privilege of accessing the Tree of Life by eating from the Forbidden Tree. In that instant, death became a looming inescapable aspect of human existence. Physical and spiritual pain throbbed into the hearts of the First Father and the First Mother and has been passed down to every subsequent family tree.

Every teardrop, every disappointment, every disease, and every act of unspeakable horror is a direct result of that first sin. Even worse, humanity lost connection and relationship with its Maker. Consequently, losing purpose, fulfillment, direction, inward peace, and intrinsic joy. In a symbolic gesture of finality, God placed an angel with a flaming sword at the entrance of the Garden to keep guard over the invaluable Tree of Life. Humanity was cast into a cruel cursed world. Yet, it’s sublimely splendid how God allowed Himself to be nailed onto the same roughly hewn materials central to humanity’s first sin. While that splintered tree bore Christ, He bore our sins in His own body (1 Peter 2:24). A tree for a tree, a perfect sacrifice in place of hopelessly flawed sacrifices, that’s what Christ did for us. And if we take up our crosses and follow Him in this fallen earthly realm, we will taste the Tree of Life’s exquisite fruit when we step into that faraway country beyond this kingdom.

He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God (Revelation 2:7).

Breakers, Takers, Givers, Makers – What Kind of Saint Are You? (Article + Podcast)

Called to Be Saints Together

When the apostle Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, he referred to them as “those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 1:2, ESV).” I’m taking a slight liberty with the text, but I like the English Standard Version in this particular verse because it emphasizes that we are “called to be saints together.” We are together in our local church and with our brothers and sisters worldwide. And that’s the beauty and the beast of the situation. When things are as they should be, “togetherness” is beautiful, unifying, and extraordinarily powerful. But when things aren’t right, “togetherness” is beastly, gnarly, disunifying, and destabilizing. And even though this is most visible in our local churches, the ripple effects of a disunified local church negatively impact the global Church.

Three Types of Togetherness

We Pentecostals have all heard plenty of sermons about the importance of unity. We know they were in “one accord and in “one place” on the Day of Pentecost. Physical, spiritual, and emotional “togetherness” was vital to the first outpouring of the Holy Ghost, and the same is true today. Satan knows this as well. So, he is constantly attacking those three types of togetherness. He’ll either try to keep you from physically being together with other saints, spiritually disunified with other saints or emotionally disconnected from other saints. Revival becomes impossible if he can destroy any of those three types of togetherness among saints in a local church. If disunity becomes malignant in a church, it takes painful emergency surgery to fix it. Otherwise, the church will suffer a slow, agonizing death. In plain terms, spiritual surgery involves one of two things: Radical miraculous heart transplants among significant sources of disunity or those sources of contention leaving the local church permanently.

Physical, spiritual, and emotional togetherness was vital to the first outpouring of the Holy Ghost, and the same is true today. Satan knows this as well. So, he is constantly attacking those three types of togetherness.

Revival Begins with Decrease

If you understand that God is serious about cutting out cancerous growths of disunity, you’ll realize that not all “growth” is healthy, and not all “decrease” is unhealthy. If a doctor cuts a cancerous growth off your body, you wouldn’t consider that a loss. And when disunifying people leave a local church, that shouldn’t be considered a loss either. Instead, it’s God’s way of cleansing and positioning a local church for unity and revival. Most of the dynamic church growth I’ve witnessed in churches began with a numerical decrease before the increase was seen.

If you understand that God is serious about cutting out cancerous growths of disunity, you’ll realize that not all growth is healthy, and not all decrease is unhealthy.

This principle is on full display in the story of Gideon leading a ragtag army to fight the oppressive Midianites (Judges 7:1-24). Gideon had 32,000 men, which was still a tiny number compared to the massive Midianite army. But God was looking for unity in the camp. So, he told Gideon to send the men who were fearful back home. And boom! Twenty-two thousand men left, leaving just 10,000 soldiers. But God wasn’t done cutting the problems out of that army. The Lord instructed Gideon to take his army to the water and make them drink, and whoever got on their knees with their faces in the water could not fight the Midianites. One commentary gives an interesting take on why God would demand such a strange thing:

Those who drink water in a kneeling position with their heads in the water to lap it up are (1) easy targets, (2) unaware of any enemy movement while they drink, and (3) susceptible to leeches. The alternative is to lie down flat (where one presents less of a target) and to keep alert, bringing water to the mouth while continuing to look around.[i]

The men who put their faces in the water weren’t fit for the victory God was about to give. They weren’t alert enough to be unified with God’s plan, and they were vulnerable to leeches and disruptive diseases that endangered the camp. In the end, Gideon’s army was whittled down to just 300 men. That must have felt like a terrible loss to Gideon at the moment before the victory finally came. But it was God’s way of getting the glory and keeping that ragtag army unified and humble.

Three Kinds of Church Members

Recently, I ran across a comment describing three kinds of church members: Browsers, Customers, and Shareholders. Some people are chronic church “Browsers.” When someone approaches and says, “Can I help you with anything?” they respond with, “No, thank you, I’m just browsing.” Browsers are looking for the perfect fit before they commit. They have an idea of something they want in their minds, and they’re not sure if they’re buying yet. It’s understandable to be in this group for a little while. But if a person stays “browsing” a church for too long, it can become an excuse to attend without commitment or submission, which eventually leads to spiritual bankruptcy.

If a person stays “browsing” a church for too long, it can become an excuse to attend without commitment or submission, which eventually leads to spiritual bankruptcy.

There’s another category of church members called Consumers, and they are often the majority of people in a local congregation. They attend with the sole purpose of consuming from the church. They come because of the music, the kid’s program, missions, the Bible teaching, the great preaching, the active fellowship, or the convenience of the location, but if you take any of those things away, they leave. If the Consumers stay around long enough, they might be mistaken for a worker and asked to do or sacrifice something, but they’ll quickly remind you that “they don’t work here.” Ironically, this group of people is usually the most vocal about their opinions, dislikes, complaints, and gripes. They have an “it’s all about me” mentality that makes them very vocal about their wants. If they give financially (they often don’t), they do it as a consumer expecting a particular product or program in return for their payment. If they don’t change, they become a drain rather than a gain to the church.

There’s another category of church members called Consumers, and they are often the majority of people in a local congregation. They attend with the sole purpose of consuming from the church.

Finally, there are Shareholders in every church. Sometimes we call them the “core” or “backbone” of the church. These are the ones who show up to a workday. They give of their time, talent, and treasure without strings. They have invested in the kingdom of God, and they take ownership and responsibility for their involvement. They pray, work, and long for the spiritual success of the church. It’s “their” church. Not in the wrong way. They know ultimately that it’s God’s church. They speak that way because they’ve invested and bought into the vision and purpose of their local congregation. They are true saints of God. Most Shareholders began as Browsers or Consumers but somehow caught the vision and grew into what God intended for them to be all along.

There are Shareholders in every church. Sometimes we call them the “core” or “backbone” of the church. These are the ones who show up to a workday. They give of their time, talent, and treasure without strings.

Breakers, Takers, Givers, Makers

Personally, the Lord gave me a vision years ago of four types of people in a local church. The first two are harmful because they are Breakers and Takers. The last two are positive because they are Givers and Makers. The Lord showed me people who were physically breaking things in the church. God was showing me physically what Breakers do spiritually. They tear things apart and cause brokenness all around them. They engage in gossip, backbiting, and leadership bashing (almost exclusively in private). Breakers sow discord, engender strife, resist all healthy changes, and refuse responsibility for their actions. They hurt vulnerable new believers and discourage seasoned saints. Breakers are responsible for the failure of programs and hinder progression of their local church when left unchecked. Confusingly, they usually portray themselves as Shareholders, but they are toxic Consumers. Or, as Jesus said, “wolves in sheep’s clothing.”

Breakers sow discord, engender strife, resist all healthy changes, and refuse responsibility for their actions. They hurt vulnerable new believers and discourage seasoned saints.

Takers aren’t as toxic as the Breakers, but they aren’t where they need to be either. Sometimes they’re very kind, friendly people. However, they do have a deep flaw. Takers are selfish. They take far more than they give. Not just financially, they take in every area from the church. They come to be fed, but they never do any giving of their own. Takers watch while others work their fingers to the bone without feeling any desire to help. They’re not invested in the kingdom; they’re invested in themselves. Takers think it’s more blessed to receive than to give. They enjoy the benefits and comforts of the church without making meaningful contributions of their own time, treasure, or talent to bless others.

Takers think it’s more blessed to receive than to give. They enjoy the benefits and comforts of the church without making meaningful contributions of their own time, treasure, or talent to bless others.

One quick caveat about Breakers and Takers might seem like a paradox. They will work if given a level of power, leadership, or authority. Sometimes they will even work very hard and have the appearance of Shareholders because of their efforts. However, because their motivations are selfish ambition, self-promotion, or the love of influence and power, their work ultimately becomes destructive and draining to the church. Any apparent good they do is outweighed by the bad. God will not bless selfish efforts regardless of how noble they seem on the surface. Even worse, if they gain notoriety, their spirit becomes contagious to others. Correcting or removing them becomes a nightmare. Many churches have been destroyed because a Taker or a Breaker gained too much influence.

God will not bless selfish efforts regardless of how noble they seem on the surface.

Givers and Makers are the opposite of Breakers and Takers. Givers and Makers make things happen with their own sacrificial blood, sweat, and tears. They give generously and work graciously. They never tear down but strive to build others up continuously. They’re supportive, selfless, kingdom-minded, concerned, compassionate, caring, loving, devoted, faithful, hardworking, sacrificial (when needed), and committed to the greater good. They prefer others before themselves (Philippians 2:3-4). They handle it with a godly, peacemaking spirit if they are hurt, disappointed, or upset. They’re slow to anger, slow to speak, and quick to listen (James 1:19). Makers and Takers are passionate about their church’s physical, spiritual, and emotional unity.

Givers and Makers make things happen with their own sacrificial blood, sweat, and tears. They give generously and work graciously. They never tear down but strive to build others up continuously.

What Kind of Saint Are You?

It’s hard to admit it, but we’ve all had a little of the Browser or Consumer mindset as saints. It’s even possible we’ve been a Taker or a Breaker at some point or another. It takes real courage to examine our hearts to see what kind of saint we really are in God’s eyes. Hopefully, we all attain Shareholder status. To be a Giver and a Maker in the kingdom of God comes with tremendous benefits and privileges. It’s contrary to our fleshly understanding, but selflessness produces lasting satisfaction. Our flesh wants to fight and scrape for “our way” and “our stuff” and our “opinions,” but that only brings heartache. Maybe, just maybe, God reversed the order and decided the least will be the greatest and the greatest will be the least (Matthew 5:19). That’s how God operates. He loves to make the last become the first and send the first to the back of the line (Matthew 20:16).

It’s contrary to our fleshly understanding, but selflessness produces lasting satisfaction. Our flesh wants to fight and scrape for “our way” and “our stuff” and our “opinions,” but that only brings heartache.

God reversed the order and decided the least will be the greatest and the greatest will be the least. That’s how God operates. He loves to make the last become the first and send the first to the back of the line.

If you’ve felt a twinge of conviction, don’t worry, God can give you a heart transplant if you ask for it. You can be everything God has called you to be. If you’re honest with yourself, you’ll realize the browsing is tedious, and the consuming never fills you up. The breaking hurts you the most, and the taking leaves you with less than you had in the first place. Let God give you peace. For all the selfless Shareholders out there, please know that you are precious beyond compare. Your sacrifice is not in vain, and it doesn’t go unnoticed. You have great treasure stored up in Heaven. Let me say “thank you” for everything you do. I need you. Your church needs you. God is for you. Nothing can stand against you. And no weapon formed against you can prosper.

Church browsing is tedious, and the consuming never fills you up. The breaking hurts you the most, and the taking leaves you with less than you had in the first place. Let God give you peace.


[i] John H. Walton, Victor H. Matthews, and Mark W. Chavalas, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament, Accordance electronic ed. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 255.

Why I’m Against Halloween (It’s Not What You Think)

Noteworthy, Episode 47

My brother Nathan has outlined terrific historical reasons Christians should avoid Halloween on his Noteworthy podcast (episode 47). Everything he points out is relevant, valid, and (I can’t resist) noteworthy. I recommend you listen because it’s a great discussion. But honestly, I’ve never needed historical context to dislike Halloween celebrations. My main reason for abstaining from Halloween festivities is different from the average objection others give. My concerns stem from a unique perspective after observing many enthusiastic Halloween celebrators over the years.

Typical Christian Objections to Halloween

Many Christian concerns about Halloween have focused on how people unwittingly participate in satanic rituals. Or they rightly sight the cultural elevation of demonically grotesque images. Indeed, Christians have no business glorifying demons, Satan, torture, death, or gore. And Christians have accurately deemed the spirit of fear and the proliferation of horror as contrary to biblical values. It’s also true that Halloween is historically connected to some pretty dark things. Past fears of razor blade-infested candy and real witches waltzing about in the dark make many people suspicious of yearly Halloween celebrations.

Halloween Goes Mainstream

When I was young, it was pretty commonplace for creepy teens to use Halloween as an excuse to do crazy things. There were lots of weird séances and Dungeons & Dragons loons playing with stuff they didn’t understand. There was a real emphasis on actually scaring people. I know some of that still happens on a small scale. But Halloween has gone more and more mainstream in modern culture. These days everything about Halloween is packaged as cute and family-friendly. The scares aren’t scary, and the demonic isn’t fearsome to the average consumer. The devil is portrayed with benign little horn hats and non-threatening little red-tailed costumes. Parents have no problem dressing their kids as little demons because they don’t actually believe in demons. It’s all make-believe, after all.

Why I’m Against Halloween

Halloween went from being an overtly anti-Christian holiday to an unbelief-in-the-supernatural holiday. The satanic went underground, and naturalism is the name of the game now. I stand firmly against Halloween because it helps desensitize children to the realities of Satan, demons, evil, and Hell. Generations of kids and now parents are comfortable with innocuous fake versions of real and very evil things. Demonically supernatural things have been reduced to mere fantasy on the same level as fairy dust and singing chipmunks, which leaves our culture in a numbed stupor, and completely unable to discern the realities of spiritual warfare. This mass naturalism plays nicely into genuine satanic strategies to keep people focused on the temporal while ignoring and disbelieving in the eternal.

Halloween went from being an overtly anti-Christian holiday to an unbelief-in-the-supernatural holiday. The satanic went underground, and naturalism is the name of the game now.

The Demonic is Real

A few years ago, I heard a mother reassure her little costumed daughter not to be afraid of the boy wearing a demon outfit because demons aren’t real. The little girl seemed skeptical, but a few more years of reassurance from her parents likely resulted in a teenager with no respect for spiritual concepts. It would be better to fear Satan than not believe in him at all. But I have encountered demons, demons in disguise, and demon-possessed people. I’ve seen vile manifestations of genuine evil firsthand. It’s not cute or cuddly. It’s wicked, despicable, dark, twisted, deceitful, and legitimately terrifying. If you’ve ever seen a person immediately after multiple demons left their body, you know just how grateful they are to be alive. You’ve seen the terror they lived with and the perverse distorted things they did while under the control of malevolent beings. And you know how nasty the demons were while being commanded to come out of that person.

Only Support the Good

I believe demonic encounters are less noticeable by hellish design. Demons are still working, but their work is subtle and nuanced. Where they once manipulated people with fear, they now influence people with unbelief. Christians should have the wisdom to stay away from this con-game. Instead, we should affirm the supernatural, both good and evil. We should only represent and support things that are good and beautiful in God’s sight. Let’s keep reminding everyone who will listen to us that God is real, and Satan is real too. There is a profoundly sinister evil lurking beneath the façade of a blissfully ignorant (or perhaps, willfully ignorant) naturalistic society. I, for one, can’t play the game of pretend others seems to enjoy during the Halloween season. I hope you feel the same.

I believe demonic encounters are less noticeable by hellish design. Demons are still working, but their work is subtle and nuanced. Where they once manipulated people with fear, they now influence people with unbelief.

Daemonium Avi (Narratio Carmine) – Demonic Bird (A Narrative Poem)

A Brief Introduction

Daemonium Avi is a narrative poem based on an actual event that took place in the parking lot of my church. Daemonium is the Latin word for demonic, and avi is the Latin word for bird. I believe the title accurately describes the subject of the poem. Demonic Bird seemed to carry more gravitas in Latin. Plus, what is poetry without a little dramatic flair? However, the contents of this poem are true, and no dramatization could adequately capture the intensity of the spiritual encounter. Hopefully, poetically sharing this moment will remind others that the supernatural invades the natural more often than we realize. And that a person filled with the Holy Ghost has authority over satanic fear tactics. Resistance in the name of Jesus will cause the enemy to flee (James 4:7).

Daemonium Avi

The car door thudded a final thump

Keys rattled and clanked against 

A coffee cup of metal and steam

It wafted tantalizingly in the sun

Arms and elbows full of daily chores

I fumbled around opening the door

When a blackbird perched nearby

Lifted a guttural unearthly cry
 
Startled, I turned to see this beast

Could this blackbird really speak

Yes, it stared angrily towards me

You’ll never win it screamed and shrieked 

God doesn’t care, and your faith is too weak

I swallowed a lump lodged in my throat

How did this brute steal my hope

This blackbird wasn’t a bird at all

Something sinister was truly involved 

Suddenly I noticed it’s crooked wing

Hanging as if lodged by a string

The bird spoke again, but this time it sneaked

One step, then two, nearer it creeped

Blurred vision, my head spinning ‘round

My voice thickened to master a sound

I knew this fowl was not Heaven sent

A single prick of light suddenly hit

The warmth of courage filled me up

From head to toe, I shivered and shook

Words tumbled out from somewhere below

In Jesus’ name, be gone, thou devilish crow

10 Signs You Might Be Guilty of Self-Idolatry

What Is Idolatry?

Like so many things in Scripture, we can trace much of theology back to the book of Genesis. Self-idolatry or self-worship is no exception. The serpent enticed Eve with words of self-exaltation: “For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods…” (Genesis 3:5). Becoming a god unto ourselves has always been the greatest temptation that Satan lays before humankind. He subtly emboldens us to take the authority that belongs to God into our own hands. We often define this as rebellion, but it is far more than just rebellion; it is self-idolatry.

Becoming a god unto ourselves has always been the greatest temptation that Satan lays before humankind. He subtly emboldens us to take the authority that belongs to God into our own hands.

In essence, anything that comes between the one true God and us is idolatry (1 Corinthians 10:7-22). We could also narrow it down further and say that anything we love more than the Lord is an idol. God demands that we offer ourselves to Him as living sacrifices for His glory (Romans 12:1-2). Anything that hinders that self-sacrifice becomes idolatrous.

Anything that comes between the one true God and us is idolatry. anything we love more than the Lord is an idol. Anything that hinders that self-sacrifice becomes idolatrous.

The Idolatry of Godless Wisdom

Leaning on our wisdom is another form of self-idolatry (Romans 1:20-25). Paul speaks of those who hold the truth in unrighteousness (Romans 1:18). They suppress the truth with their sense of self-righteousness. This kind of self-idolatry leads to worthless thinking, and God eventually gives this type of person over to complete foolishness and depravity (Romans 1:21-30).

An Idolatrous Conundrum!

Psalm 115 is probably the most poetically profound condemnation of idolatry found in Scripture. In an epic biblical smackdown, the psalmist describes idols as useless and those who make them and trust them as ridiculous (Psalm 115:4-8). In other words, idolators become eerily like their idols. They make the idols and become like their own creation. They trust in idols and become like the demonic idols they trust. But, of course, this begs the question: Are self-idolators worshipping themselves? Or, have they just worshipped another idol for so long they have become like the ungodly object of their affection? Either way, it would be wise for us all to recognize the signs of self-idolatry and remove any hint of it that might be in our hearts.

Idolators become eerily like their idols. They make the idols and become like their own creation.

10 Signs You Might Be Guilty of Self-Idolatry

  1. You search your heart before you search the Bible (Jeremiah 17:9, Psalm 18:30).
  2. Your feelings matter more to you than your faithfulness (Proverbs 28:26, Luke 12:42).
  3. You are overly obsessed with outward beauty and vanity (Jeremiah 4:30, Proverbs 31:30, Galatians 5:19-30, 1 Peter 3:3-4, 1 Timothy 2:9-10, Deuteronomy 22:5, Leviticus 19:28, Isaiah 3:16-26, Exodus 20:26).
  4. You routinely reject Apostolic pastoral authority (Hebrews 13:7, Hebrews 13:17, 1 Thessalonians 5:12).
  5. You crave flattery but recoil at conviction (Proverbs 27:6).
  6. You lack compassion for those less fortunate than you (Colossians 3:12).
  7. You maintain a double standard; you consider some things acceptable for you but not for others (Proverbs 20:10, Romans 2:11).
  8. You use and manipulate people while simultaneously wanting their admiration (Luke 11:42).
  9. Your prayers are primarily focused on your own wants and needs; you rarely pray selflessly for others (Philippians 2:3-4).
  10. You view church as being all about your blessing; your opinions, wants, and needs are always the main focus (Philippians 2:3-4).

Idolatry Inside the Church

I know some of you are thinking that idolatry is an outside problem. No. The worst versions of idolatry are inside problems: Inside the “saints” and the Church. If you study the Old and New Testaments, you’ll find the most grievous forms of idolatry came from within the camps of God’s people. It’s time to stop viewing idolatry as a problem far removed from the Church or something that was just an Old Testament problem. Idolatry is alive and well today. Thankfully, God is still on the throne, and He still draws near to those who seek Him and Him alone (James 4:8).

The worst versions of idolatry are inside problems: Inside the “saints” and the Church. If you study the Old and the New Testaments, you’ll find the most grievous forms of idolatry came from within the camps of God’s people.

The Idolatry of the ‘Perfect’ Past

Some of you may be tiring of my incessant Screwtape inspired ramblings, and you are forgiven for those feelings. But allow this one last dalliance through The Screwtape Letters and the creative genius of C.S. Lewis. I’m pulling my thoughts from letter seventeen where the sly demon Screwtape describes an elderly woman who is manipulated by a demon named Glubose. Screwtape mischievously writes:

“The woman is in what may be called the ‘All-I-Want’ state of mind. All she wants is a cup of tea properly made, or an egg properly boiled, or a slice of bread properly toasted. But she never finds any servants or any friend who can do these things ‘properly’—because her ‘properly’ conceals an insatiable demand for the exact, and almost impossible, palatable pleasures which she imagines she remembers from the past; a past described by her as ‘the days when you could get good servants’ but known only to us as the days when her senses were more easily pleased and she had pleasures of other kinds which made her less dependent on those of the table. Meanwhile, the daily disappointment produces daily ill temper: cooks give notice and friendships are cooled.”

Lewis imaginatively strikes upon the demonic tactic of encouraging humans to idolize the past and trivialize the present, which jeopardizes the future. I call it the idolatry of the perfect past. This can be actualized in dozens of little ways. For some, it is manifested as a longing for a better time that actually never existed. We, humans, have a tendency to remember things through the fuzzy lens of what we wish they had been. This often obscures the painful realities of the distant past and ignores the fact that we too have changed. If you don’t believe me, imagine living without heat in the winter and air conditioning in the summer.

Undoubtedly, some things were better in the past, but they certainly were not perfect. Furthermore, different doesn’t always equal bad in the same way that new doesn’t always equal better. In essence, what we call perfection is usually a preference or a philosophical proposition. And there’s nothing wrong with having preferences unless our preferences become an idol.

Lewis speaks of an elderly woman who can’t enjoy food or fellowship because she perceives that nothing is prepared as perfectly as it was in the ‘good old days’. This may or may not have been the case. But her sin had nothing to do with her preferences, she had a right to those opinions up to a point. Rather, her sin was realized in the resulting mistreatment of the people around her due to her displeasure with the present. In other words, her idol made her ‘ill-tempered’. Beyond that, idolatry had blocked her vision so effectively she was incapable of recognizing the good or even—dare I say—the better things of the present.

Nasty temperament is the primary way you can tell that a preference has become an idol. Let’s take this discussion to church for just a moment: If you can’t worship in a service because your favorite song from yesteryear wasn’t featured you’ve probably turned the past into an idol. And, if it makes you mad and ill-tempered check your spiritual temperature because you have a fever. And, if you just threw your computer across the room its time to pray through. Now, having said that, you might be right! The new song you don’t like might not be as good as the old song you do like. We all have preferences, partialities aren’t the problem. However, if we can’t enjoy the good things or —dare I say—the less good things of the present because of the past we are in serious trouble.

I feel compelled to pause and state clearly that I love many things from my past. I even love things that predate my lifespan by hundreds of years. For those of you who might be wondering, I am not a hymn hater. In fact, I’m an old soul. I’m hopelessly old-fashioned. I have all kinds of preferences that go unmet on a regular basis, in and out of church settings. Let’s be honest, my preferences are better than your preferences. I’m just kidding. The point being, I’ve learned not to elevate my preferences above unity and personal relationships. The only exception to this rule is when my preferences are properly aligned with God’s Word and someone else’s preferences violate Scripture.

Let’s stir the pot and complicate the conversation for a moment: there are other similar types of idolatry that are equally dangerous. Brad Titus capably identifies one as The Idolatry of the Future. In this variation, peace can never be found in the present because something better is always in the future.

There is yet another variant, I call it the ‘idolatry of the present’. This mindset idolizes the new, the current, the ‘latest thing’ above all else. It marginalizes the past and robs the future of the depth and richness that can only be found in a healthy reverence for the good things of the past.

Young people who carry this idol exacerbate ‘the idolatry of the past’ within the hearts of elders. Their derision for the ‘old fashioned’ inflames reactionary passions. Meanwhile, those suffering under the miserable weight of ‘future idolatry’ sit around and long for better days that always seem just out of reach.

As you can see, disunity and strife are the real demonic agendas behind these three particular brands of idolatry. When saints elevate petty preferences above maintaining right relationships with people; churches become war zones rather than houses of worship. And, when people idolize what lies ahead nothing of value is accomplished in the present.

We smash these idols by honoring the past, celebrating the present, and embracing the future. This can be done. It must be done for the sake of unity and revival. Thriving churches honor the past without living there, celebrate new things that are good, and intentionally prepare for the future. 

“But foolish and unlearned questions avoid, knowing that they do gender strifes. And the servant of the Lord must not strive; but be gentle unto all men, apt to teach, patient. In meekness instructing those that oppose themselves; if God peradventure will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth; And that they may recover themselves out of the snare of the devil, who are taken captive by him at his will (2 Timothy 2:23-26).”

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Heroic Leadership – 10 Lessons

Like most little boys, my son is fascinated with superheroes. Maybe that’s why I’m writing an article about the parallels between leadership and ambiguous fictional superheroes. For the most part, I’m critical of pop culture. However, the cultural fascination with fictitious superheroes (it’s a multi-billion dollar industry) is interesting from an anthropological perspective because it demonstrates that people have an innate desire to see good triumph over evil in spectacular fashion.

People are fascinated by the idea of a super savior that defeats evil and overcomes extreme obstacles. From here I could launch into a diatribe about the disturbing trend towards the cultural celebration of “bad guys” winning, and the glorification of evil, but I’ll refrain.

Oddly enough, fictitious superheroes often instigate seemingly innocuous conversations with my son about very deep topics. For example, the reality of good and evil, the importance of doing the right thing even when it’s hard, doing what’s right even when everyone is against you, and how to be a leader. That might sound silly to you, but those are things I want my son to take seriously.

During one of those “deep” conversations, it dawned on me that most people want to grow up and be heroic. Sadly, age and the strains of real life have a way of tainting that desire if we’re not careful, but the desire is there somewhere. And that brings me to the topic of leadership. Ask any good leader and they will tell you that they were drawn to leadership because they wanted to help people. This is never truer than in the case of pastoral leadership. Godly ministers desperately want to see people saved. That’s our number one goal. I recently spoke with the CEO of a billion-dollar medical device company and I asked what drew him to the industry. His answer was typical; he wanted to help people.

Obviously, there is an evil side of the leadership coin. Those are the Hitler’s, Stalin’s, false prophets, and wolves in sheep clothing kind of leaders. But I’m writing to the “good guy” leaders today. The ones who desperately want to make a difference and truly help people. But maybe leadership isn’t everything you thought it would be. Maybe leading has left you feeling more and more jaded. These ten “superhero” inspired leadership lessons are for you.

  1. Heroic leadership is a lonely business.

Heroic leadership will often cause you to be misunderstood and mistreated. Doing the right thing means swimming against the current of popular culture and failed methodology. Heroic leaders must be prepared to endure times of loneliness and isolation.

  1. Heroic leadership is a dangerous business.

When you shine a light on evil, expect evil to retaliate. When you challenge the status quo, expect the status quo to retaliate.

  1. Heroic leadership is often a thankless job.

Everyone wants to be appreciated. Everyone wants to be respected, but heroic leadership does not lead for accolades. Heroic leadership leads to help people. Jesus spoke of avoiding the pharisaical spirit that does good deeds just to be seen (Matthew 6:1-16). Heroic leaders don’t need a pat on the back to keep doing the right thing.

  1. Every heroic leader has an inner villain.

In the biblical sense, this is the epic struggle between the Spirit and the flesh. Even heroic leaders have inner struggles and temptations that constantly threaten to overthrow righteousness. Our villainous nature must be crucified every single day or it will gain dominance in our lives.

  1. Every heroic leader has a super-nemesis.

It’s tempting for heroic leaders to view wicked people as the enemy, but this is not the Christian worldview that God wants us to hold. We don’t wrestle with flesh and blood (Ephesians 6:12). There is a super villain named Lucifer who is the arch enemy of everything that is good. Knowing the source of evil is paramount if you are going to effectively combat evil.

  1. Every heroic leader has unshakable core convictions, values, and drive that sustains and propels them against overwhelming odds.

Heroic leaders have solid principles that are unchanging. Genuine righteous values don’t shift with circumstances. Adversity exposes cowardly leadership. Cowardly leadership sacrifices values on the altars of convenience, popularity, and self-preservation.

  1. At the end of the day, heroic leaders take off the mask and look like everybody else.

Heroic leaders wear a mask of professionalism. Heroic leaders can’t be everybody’s buddy or best friend, they are leaders. I know the big buzz word these days is “real”. Everyone is talking about being real, authentic, and genuine. Some of that is good. I get it. But often, just being “real” is code for lack of composure. Heroic leaders aren’t fake or plastic, but they do maintain composure, high standards, and a work ethic that sets them apart from others.

But when heroic leaders get home they are tired and human just like everybody else. They need genuine connections, love, and relationships. They need interaction with their family and close friends. Heroic leaders must learn to let down their guard at home or risk alienating their deepest, most important relationships.

  1. Heroic leaders aren’t trying to be heroes.

There’s a difference between being a wanna-be hero and simply being committed to doing what is needed, necessary, and right. Heroic leaders are like David when he saw Goliath intimidating the entire army of Israel. David wasn’t trying to be a hero when he faced Goliath, he just couldn’t stand by and let evil win.

  1. Heroic leaders always have a kryptonite that the enemy will try to exploit.

Even heroic leaders have a weakness (or two, or three). Knowing what your kryptonite is and learning how to deal with it is critical.

  1. Heroic leaders sometimes lose their way, but they face their failures and make things right.

In the quest to do right, heroic leaders sometimes lose focus or let the ends justify the means. They falter, they fail, they miss the mark, they err, they misjudge. That’s because they are human beings. However, heroic leaders know how to say, “I was wrong.” They learn how to say, “I’m sorry.” They face their failures and own their mistakes. They don’t shift blame or pass the buck. Owning and correcting mistakes is one of the most heroic things a person can do.

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Spiritual Stockholm Syndrome

Officer Jason was excited to be a part of the task force commissioned with retrieving Suzie who had been kidnapped out of a Supermarket when she was only 8 years old. Now five years later they believed they knew exactly where she was being held captive; a small house on the edge of a sleepy California town. They watched the house and waited until her captor stepped out onto the front porch for a smoke.  He was on the ground and handcuffed without incident within a matter of seconds. Officer Jason’s heart pounded with pride as he stepped into the house anticipating emancipating Suzie.  His thoughts raced to the inevitable tear-filled reunion between Suzie and her loving parents, who had been inconsolable these past five years without their little girl. The house was filthy and filled with an odor so pungent that his eyes began to water; as Jason crossed the living room he suddenly found himself staring down the muzzle of a revolver; Suzie was holding the gun and her eyes were full of worry with a tinge of rage as well. “Where’s my Edward?” she screamed! “What have you done?” she sobbed! And then she pulled the trigger.

Thankfully Officer Jason was wearing his vest that day. He recovered quickly from the bruised rib, but Suzie is still struggling to recover from a terrible condition known as Stockholm Syndrome.

STOCKHOLM SYNDROME (sometimes referred to as Capture Bonding) is a psychological phenomenon where hostages identify with, become emotionally attached to, and sometimes even fall in love with their captors. They often defend, protect and develop strong emotional connections with their abusers. Victims of abuse such as battered wives, battered girlfriends, children, concentration camp survivors, and prisoners of war often suffer from Stockholm Syndrome. Sadly, people like Officer Jason have learned the hard way that victims of Stockholm Syndrome will resist the rescue, they will fight against salvation, and they will protect their abusers. It’s tragic! It’s heartbreaking! And many never fully recover from the psychological damage that lingers in their lives even long after the physical captivity is over. They are physically free but emotionally bound.

I see evidence of SPIRITUAL STOCKHOLM SYNDROME all around me. We know that Satan has come to kill, to steal and to destroy (John 10:19). His mission is total domination of your soul. He wants your soul as a trophy for Hell’s mantle place.  He knows what his fate will be, but he also knows that every tortured soul breaks God’s heart. So he roams like a silent assassin, a quiet killer; looking to bring you into captivity (1 Peter 5:8). He knows better than to present himself as your enemy. No one would willingly open up their front door to a thug or a kidnapper. Instead, he presents himself as a friend, a protector, a savior, a helper, or even an angel of light (2 Corinthians 11:14) if needed. He morphs into whatever it takes to bring your guard down. He’ll tell you whatever you need to hear in order to manipulate your actions and dominate your thinking. He’ll separate you from everything that can truly help you, and everyone who truly loves you. He’ll twist your mind until you’re not sure what’s wrong & what’s right, what’s up & what’s down, what’s real & what’s not. Until you call right, wrong and you call wrong, right (Isaiah 5:20).

We’ve all witnessed victims of SPIRITUAL STOCKHOLM SYNDROME who were so confused, they actually believed the thing holding them captive and destroying their life was their dearest friend.  In dramatic cases, we see the drug addict who thinks they can’t live without another hit.  The alcoholic who can’t make it without “just” another sip. The gambler who can’t resist playing away his kid’s college fund.  The promiscuous person who lives for another cheap thrill. But those are only the obvious cases. Many others suffer silently from Spiritual Stockholm Syndrome; they’re held captive by false doctrines, fooled by faulty teachers, drained by evil philosophies, and clinging to false promises made by wolves in sheep’s clothing.

Satan is a master of deception and subtlety. When he approached Eve in the Garden he seemed friendly, familiar and caring. He disguised himself as a leader who cared more about her well-being than God did. He just wanted her to have a good time. He just wanted her to meet her full potential. He just wanted her to be free.  In reality, he was setting the world up for pain, and death, and sin, and evil beyond Eve’s ability to comprehend.

Satan is not your drinking buddy, your partner in crime, your small-time pot dealer, or your local pimp; Satan is the incarnation of evil.  He’s worse than your worst nightmare, and the only thing that he hates more than you is the God that made you. His only goal is gaining total dominion over your soul. Hell is not a party boat, a late night club, or an afterlife playground. Hell is not a curse word or a descriptive term for your bad day. It’s a real place of eternal judgment. Captivity there will be final. There is no escaping Hell once Satan gets you there. Hell will make your worst day on earth seem like a lazy summer afternoon.  In Hell, God’s mercy will no longer restrict Satan’s evil. In Hell, the blood of Jesus will no longer set the captive free. In Hell, salvation will not be available.  But if you’re still breathing that means you still have access to freedom.

In the Gospel of John, chapter 8, Jesus had a fascinating exchange with the crowd that he was teaching that day. He had just made an impassioned statement of hope and deliverance by declaring, “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free (John 8:32).” Their response was an indication of full-blown Spiritual Stockholm Syndrome. They said, “We be Abraham’s seed, and were never in bondage to any man: how sayest thou, Ye shall be made free (John 8:33)?” First of all, they had been and still were in a form of physical bondage (they were under Rome’s thumb). They were hostages in their own land. But beyond that, they were certainly in spiritual captivity. The religious leaders of the day had distorted the law into something that it was never intended to be, and sin was running rampant amongst God’s elect. Their response was as arrogant as it was ignorant. But Jesus was undeterred by their blatant Stockholm Syndrome. He ignored their denial and responded, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Whosoever committeth sin is the servant of sin. And the servant abideth not in the house forever: but the Son abideth forever (John 8:34-35). Sin is a cruel taskmaster who often masquerades as a friend. We fall in love with the hostage taker and attack our savior. Isn’t that exactly what they did to Jesus when they screamed crucify him and hung him on a tree? Thankfully, the jubilant words of Jesus are just as true today as they were when he first said, “If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed (John 8:36).