We recently launched into a study of the book of Acts on Sunday mornings. At the men’s dinner one Tuesday evening, one of the guys asked me why I picked the book of Acts. I told him that it was where I sensed the Lord wanted us to go next. For me, the decision of which book to preach through is an important matter of prayer and that is the main reason we are heading that way on Sunday mornings.
What do I expect? Why do I think the Lord wants us to go through Acts? There are several reasons.
Our study of Ephesians was highly doctrinal. Acts is action-packed with the adventures of God’s people doing what he calls them to do. The change is good for us. It will also challenge us to follow the Lord with the same intensity and passion that they did.
Acts is about church life. God designed his church to be the temple of the Holy Spirit. We are meant to have deep relationships with one another and with the Lord (1 John 1:1-4). But the book of Acts isn’t a glossy advertisement; it shows the messiness of church life. There can be people that are hard to work with and relationships can become frayed. We need to hear that and learn from what happened in those early churches.
Acts demonstrates what the power of the Holy Spirit can do. Churches naturally drift toward being powered by people rather than by the Holy Spirit. This is so common that many have never seen what the power of the Spirit looks like in the church. If they have, it has been the 9-volt battery variety. You know, just enough to say there is power there, but no one is going to get hurt. But the power of the Spirit in the Book of Acts is so awesome that people actually die (Acts 5). It is power that carried the gospel across the Roman Empire and turned the world upside down.
Acts chronicles believers living the Christian life in a hostile environment. Today we live in a country that is turning its back on the gospel. How do you follow Christ when people around you are indifferent to him? What do you do when people reject Jesus? How do you handle it when people reject you because of Jesus? Believers not only get mocked, but imprisoned, tortured, and killed in the book of Acts. We need to learn from them how to follow Christ in difficult places.
Finally, there is a hunger stirring in me to see the Spirit move as in days of old. I’m not talking about hyper-charismania where the emotionally-challenged seek spiritual highs. I mean the types of things you see in the book of Acts. Where the Word is proclaimed and the Spirit presses it home with power, where believers are witnessing to friends and strangers with the anointing of the Spirit, where there is an intense hatred of the sin in our lives and a panting after righteousness, where believers are passionately in love with Jesus, where missionaries are called and sent to the ends of the earth, where Scripture is studied and applied under the guidance of the Spirit, where the shackled are set free and the broken are healed, where the forces of darkness are pushed back, and where the King reigns supreme. That’s what I want to be a part of.
How about you?
- Pastor Karl
The Bible is full of heroes that inspire us by their faith-filled exploits. Daniel in the lion’s den, Noah building the ark, and Elijah calling down fire from heaven capture our imaginations and create within us a yearning to follow in their footsteps.
Perhaps no one is a greater example of the life of faith than Abraham. God called him to leave his native country and go to a new land. He and his then-childless wife would eventually have more descendants than there were stars in the sky and all of the nations of the world would be blessed through him. While far from perfect, Abraham’s faithful obedience is held up in the Scriptures as a model for all of us to follow. He is called the father of those who have faith (Galatians 3:7-9).
Romans 4:20 has a great secret that points the way to developing a faith like Abraham’s. “No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God.” Abraham was in the habit of giving glory to God before he received the answer to the promise.
Many of us will remember to thank God afterwards for the blessings that he gives us. Our thankfulness may even turn to worship. Abraham glorified God even when it appeared that it would be impossible for God to keep his promise. And the practice of glorifying God caused his faith to grow deeper and more certain.
What does it mean to glorify God? The term “glory” means that something is weighty or honorable. When referring to the Lord, it means that which makes God impressive. Of course, each of his attributes is impressive. We cannot add to the “weight” of them, but by focusing on them and acknowledging them we bring him honor.
By developing the discipline of glorifying God, we change the “weight” which we allow things to have in our lives. We tend to focus on our problems. As we do, we give our problems “glory” and they become heavier in our minds. If we focus on God, he becomes heavier and our problems lighter.
What does this look like? How do we glorify God so that our faith grows stronger?
I find that I need to set aside time to worship. Sunday morning is a good place to start. The music team at Word of Life does a good job of setting the table for us to worship. The music is God-focused and invites us to glorify him. It’s possible to simply sing along or enjoy the quality of music, so I need to intentionally focus on the Lord and the aspect of his character that the music is highlighting. In my mind (or out loud) I say, “Yes, Lord, this is true about you. You are holy. You are powerful. You are faithful.” The music, along with the encouragement of the people around me singing, makes it easy to shift my vision from my problems to God.
But an hour on Sunday isn’t enough. We need to have regular times of private worship as well. Let me give you three tips to developing a habit of glorifying God:
As you spend time focusing on the greatness of God you will discover that your faith in him will grow. As your faith in him grows, you find that obedience to him will become easier. You will pray with more certainty and start to walk in the footsteps of Abraham
“I will sing of the steadfast love of the Lord, forever; with my mouth I will make known your faithfulness to all generations.” – Psalm 89:1
In this verse Ethan the Ezrahite (the writer) declares that he will sing of the steadfast love of the Lord forever. Faithful lovingkindness is a fundamental aspect of the character of God and the writer’s heart is overflowing with joy as he thinks about how his life has been sustained and blessed by Lord.
But he goes beyond simply the “God and me” focus of the beginning of the verse. He commits himself to declaring God’s faithfulness to all generations, and that is something that we need to think about. As I look at Word of Life, I see a range of ages. There are children, youth, young singles and couples, young parents, middle-agers, “primetimers”, and those who have been “primetimers” for quite a while. If the psalmist were here, he would be thinking about how he could remind each of these generations about the faithfulness of God. How about you?
Regardless of the stage of life we are in, we need to be reminded of the faithfulness of God. The young mother that is exhausted from chasing toddlers and wondering where she will find strength to do it another day needs to be encouraged. The teenager who is wondering whether following Jesus is worth it needs to be reminded that God will be faithful to bless their obedience. The elderly person who is struggling because of never-ending health problems needs to be reinvigorated with stories of the faithfulness of God. Perhaps even you need to be refreshed with a first-person account of the faithfulness of God.
One of the reasons that we gather together is so that we can encourage one another. We can listen to sermons online and we can sing along with the music on our phones, but we cannot encourage one another well without being together. That’s why the writer to the Hebrews tells us to consider how to stir one another up to love and good deeds. He then tells us not to stop meeting together, but to meet to encourage one another (Hebrews 10:25).
Can I challenge you to do something? When you are at church next time, ask the Lord to show you someone from a different generation that needs some encouragement. Then come alongside them and share a story of the faithful loving-kindness of the Lord in your life. Make the faithfulness of the Lord known to that generation. Don’t be scared, everyone likes to be encouraged with stories of the steadfast love of the Lord!
In my last post I wrote about "the trap". It is a scheme of the evil one that ensnares many believers. He tempts the believer and seductively lures us into sin and then viciously attacks us when we sin. It is a strategy designed to keep the believer from from following after God.
There were two reactions to the article. Some people thanked me for exposing the trap. They realised that they had experienced this same thing themselves. One person even realised that the trap described exactly what they were experiencing. The image helped them get back on their feet spiritually and start walking with Jesus again. There was grace and forgiveness to be found in Christ.
Others were concerned that I was somehow condoning sin in the life of the follower of Christ. They reasoned that people would understand my article to think that sin was somehow okay and we should tolerate it in our lives. Nothing could be farther from the truth. "Sin is okay" is yet another trap of the enemy. It's a lie that he whispers to keep us from experiencing the freedom of a holy life.
Two Key Truths
There are two key truths that Paul says make up a "sure foundation". They are both extremely important.
The first is this: the Lord knows who are his.
The mystery of God's choosing is shrouded in his will. We were chosen before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight (Eph 1). Jesus said that he knows his sheep and that his sheep know the sound of his voice. When we come to faith in Christ we are sealed with the Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance.
If you have been born again by the Spirit of God, you have been adopted by Him. You are a son or daughter of the Most High.
You don't become a Christian by being born into a Christian family. You become a Chrisitan, in the biblical sense, by regeneration. You have to be born again. We experience several things as we are born again: repentance and faith. We repent of our sins and we believe the gospel. Jesus, the Son of God, died for our sins and rose from the dead.
You will never be more "his" than when you were born again. However, we need to remember that regeneration (being born again) is, like physical birth, only the first step of a life with the Lord. And just as a baby grows and becomes like their parents, we are to grow and become more like Jesus.
That brings us to the second key truth:
Those who call on the Lord must turn away from wickedness.
We are called to live holy lives. Sin and rebellion against God are never okay. They diminish our fellowship with God, rob us of joy and peace, spoil our spiritual fruit, and damage relationships. We are called to be holy. We must remember that!
We are to put off the old man and put on the new. We are to get rid of sinful attitudes and actions. We are to learn to live lives of love. Read Colossians 3:1-14; Ephesians 4-5; 1 Peter 1:13-16.
There is a great deception in the land: salvation without holiness. There are people who point to some past event and say to themselves, "I've got that heaven thing taken care of so I don't have to worry about that. I might as well 'enjoy life' and live like the devil!" Some point to their infant baptism and others to a "salvation prayer" at a crusade as their "get out of hell free" card. But in either, their true hearts are exposed: they are not saved. The redeemed desire to live lives of holiness! Don't be deceived: Those who call on the Lord must turn away from wickedness!
For those that build their lives on these truths the transformation can be amazing. Drugs and alcohol lose their grip. Greed turns into generosity. Anger into patience and gentleness. Despair turns to hope.
But sometimes we fall. When we do, the enemy wants us to believe that our sin has ruined our hope of heaven. That's the trap I wrote about.
But heaven was never based on our performance. We are saved by grace through faith. Our relationship with God is based on the finished work of Jesus Christ. He died for our sins. He offers us grace and mercy. From beginning to end, our salvation is based on grace. When we sin, we need to repent, receive forgiveness, and and continue to walk the highway of holiness.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.
Note: This article was originally posted on pastorkarlsblog.blogspot.com on November 4, 2016
This post was originally posted on Pastor Karl's old blog. You can find that blog here.
It is an insidious trap built by Satan himself.
He dangles temptation in front of us and fans the smouldering embers of our fallen nature with a sweet hypnotic voice. Like Eve of old, we see the forbidden fruit and it appears pleasant and good. The ancient serpent, having stoked our fallen nature to a brilliant blaze, whispers encouragement and so we partake...again. There is a moment of pleasure followed by searing guilt. The voice that was so sweetly encouraging us to sin becomes the voice of the accuser. "Guilty! Filthy! Failure! You claim to be a Christian but you are not! A Christian would never do that! It's too late...there will be no forgiveness this time!" It all sounds true. You feel so alone. So terribly horribly alone.
Somehow another voice begins to whisper that the pleasure of sin will make the loneliness more tolerable. Another forbidden fruit appears, more tantalising than the last. In your loneliness it seems like an oasis. And the cycle plunges you ever deeper and feelings of loneliness separated by fleeting moments of pleasure seem to become your way of life. The cycle is a trap all too familiar to the followers of Christ.
How do you move on?
Of course the best was to get out of any trap is to avoid it altogether, but I want to address those who are in the trap. You are in the quicksand. You feel like an athlete who is about to be cut from the team for making too many bad plays. Are you there? I've been there.
Let me share a secret with you: The ending of the story is glorious.
You think that story began with a decision to follow Christ and is ending with your failure. But the story didn't begin with you. It began with Him. He called you. He picked you. The One who sees the end from the beginning chose you to belong to him. Look at the ground, then look at the sky. He chose you before those things even existed. He knew all about your weaknesses and your failings and he chose you in spite of them. He wants you. He desires you. You feel lonely. The Lord of the Universe loves you. He overwhelmed your defences and you said yes to him. But he did the overwhelming. He knew what you had done and he wanted you.
He also knew that you would fail. More than once.
He called you anyway.
It really is incredible, isn't it?
The story is about him. You are involved, but the hero isn't you. It's him.
Paul tells us in the first chapter of Ephesians that God lavished on you the riches of his grace. Grace is something that you don't deserve, cannot earn, and can never repay. Where you sit right now, feeling alone and guilty, is the exact moment that you need to know his grace. He knows that. He understands that and in his wisdom he gives you his grace.
He isn't a miser who looks at you and tries to figure our just how much grace you need. "Let's see, yesterday he needed 14 millilitres of grace but today he really screwed up so I guess we'll have to give him 27." No, he is lavishing it on you. He is opening the floodgates of heaven and pouring his grace and forgiveness on you. You are standing under the Niagara Falls of his grace. Right now.
Before the foundation of the world he knew that this moment was coming, and he wants you to know know that your cries for forgiveness have been heard. You have been forgiven. John writes, "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9). His grace is poured out because of his wisdom and understanding. He knew and knows and he loved you and loves you still. His grace joyously flows over you abundantly.
And the greatness of the grace poured out on you causes angels to worship in awestruck wonder.
The story ends in a wedding. Remember that. You are the bride of Christ. He has chosen you. In spite of what you feel at the moment, you have an engagement ring on your finger. You are his. You are on your way to a glorious wedding: yours (Eph 1:13-14; 5:25-32). The story is not about how well you perform. It is about his grace. You love him. He knows that. And the story is about his love and his lavish grace. So put the focus back where it belongs: on Jesus.
So what next?
Here are some things that you can do:
The Psalms are a treasure chest full of riches. Some, like Psalm 23 are well known while others are obscure. One of the most famous psalms is Psalm 119. Its notoriety comes from being the longest of all the psalms. Weighing in at 176 verses, it has derailed many Bible reading plans. It is the longest chapter in the Bible and has over twice as many verses as the next longest psalm! You may be surprised to know that it has become one of my go-to psalms in the Bible.
My love of the psalm started when I was going through a dry time in my devotions. My bible reading had become somewhat routine and perfunctory. At the same time, I was reading Ancient Paths by Corey Russell. I was startled to discover that Psalm 119 was one of his favorite psalms. He caused me to take a fresh look at it. But I don’t want to teach you about the psalm. I want you to encounter what I did as I began looking at the it.
Let me encourage you to start your devotional time with Psalm 119. Don’t read the whole thing, but read it a section at time. The psalm is an acrostic poem broken down into 22 sections following the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Each verse in a given section starts with the same letter of the alphabet. Even though you cannot see this in the English text, it provides handy bite-sized sections to meditate on.
So read a section, then pause and reflect on the what it says. Perhaps you will want to underline different subjects. Say a prayer based on what you see and then move on with your regular bible reading.
I think you’ll be surprised at the results. The psalm is a reflection of David’s passion for encountering the Lord through the Word. As you work your way through the psalm over 3 weeks, you will find his passion to be contagious and your heart will soon be ablaze for Jesus and his word!
Yes, the title is "Faith Popcorn and a Proverb". No commas are needed because Faith Popcorn is a real person, not something you eat while watching Christian movies. In 1981 she coined the term “cocooning” to describe what she perceived to be a trend for people to stay at home away from perceived danger. This was twenty years before 9/11 and before the mass shooting epidemic. It was before the internet both amplified the perceived threats and gave a pleasant way of escaping while in the safety of your home. In 2013, in an issue of Fortune magazine, Faith Popcorn said that cocooning had become the normal lifestyle and that “uber-cocooning” and “bunkering” were now becoming trends as people had even greater fear of engagement with what was perceived to be an increasing threatening world. This trend is increasing. Our homes really have become our castles where we retreat and avoid interacting with those around us (except via social media). This has taken place even though since 1981 the crime rate has dropped significantly for almost every category of crime. It is getting safer outside, but we are retreating more and more. We live in a “hide behind the walls” culture and reinforce our beliefs by what we watch on our screens.
We need to hear the words of Scripture:
Rescue those who are being taken away to death;
hold back those who are stumbling to the slaughter.
If you say, “Behold, we did not know this,”
does not he who weighs the heart perceive it?
Does not he who keeps watch over your soul know it,
and will he not repay man according to his work?
Proverbs 24:11-12 ESV
We are not called to cocoon. We are called to be salt and light in a world that desperately needs Jesus. When we retreat into the safety of our homes and ignore the cries for help around us, we are placing our light under a bushel basket. We, though we might claim to be Christ-followers, wind up much like those who walked right past the man who had been robbed on the road to Jericho.
When you read this opening line of this Proverb, who immediately came to mind? Who are those being taken away to death and led to slaughter? This passage places a responsibility before us: we are to rescue those being led away to death. It warns us against closing our eyes against what we have seen and to become active in saving those who are heading for destruction.
There are those who are being led away to destruction by their addictions. The opioid crisis, alcohol, heroin and other drugs are enslaving people and destroying lives. Pornography and sexual sins are keeping people in bondage and devastating marriages to the point that marriage itself is becoming an afterthought. This is one of the reasons that we have a Celebrate Recovery program. This is an effective way to lead people to freedom in Christ. Know someone who is struggling? Invite them Celebrate Recovery on Friday night. It starts with a meal at 6:15 on Friday. If they are hesitant, offer to pick them up and attend with them! Or if you don’t know anyone who is struggling, you can always volunteer to help on Friday nights.
Did you know Coon Rapids made Rolling Stone a few years ago? They carried a story about a young girl who went to a friend's house after skating at Cheap Skate. It was at her friend's house that she met the woman who talked her into going on a road trip. A few days later she found herself being prostituted in Texas. Human trafficking is a major issue that hides in the shadows all around us. Evil networks have learned that humans are much more profitably trafficked than drugs. Perhaps this is the issue that immediately popped into your mind. There are organizations that are actively fighting this evil…why not get involved?
One of the great tragedies of our lifetimes is the number of abortions that are performed in the United States. This practice obviously affects the unborn child, but it also leads to great harm to the mother who often deals with the emotional trauma of the decision for the rest of her life. This may be the issue that Jesus wants you to get involved with. You may have a someone that the Lord is calling you to help. Or perhaps you want to get involved with a ministry that deals with the issue. New Life Pregnancy Center is an effective program here in the Twin Cities that you might want to check out.
Issues like addiction, trafficking, and abortion grab the headlines. These are the manifestations of a deeper problem: sin. The Bible tells us that people are enslaved to sin and are headed toward an eternity in hell. They are all “being taken away to death” and “stumbling towards slaughter.” We cannot close our eyes to this reality. The gospel is the only hope of saving those around us who are headed towards hell. We are all called to be witnesses of the death and resurrection. We are ambassadors and representatives of Christ. Our neighbors, co-workers, friends and relatives need to hear the gospel. How can we be content with cocooning when eternity is at stake?
May the Lord lead us out of our comfortable patterns and into the center of his will. May we be ones who take seriously the call to be his witnesses and to lead people to freedom in Christ!
"They packed their belongings in a casket."
I remember reading about the first Alliance missionaries and their deep commitment to go to dangerous places. They didn't think they would be coming back alive. Perhaps they would serve overseas for years, but it was likely that they would be martyred for their efforts to shine the light of Jesus in the Congo.
I was reminded of this last week when Janet and I attended the General Council of the C&MA in Orlando. It was a week of business meetings, worship, reports and challenging messages brought to a climax on the final day when 62 new Alliance workers were commissioned for overseas work. While there was much to celebrate during the week, I couldn’t help but feel an undercurrent of the seriousness of the work to which we are called.
For several decades the work of Alliance missions focused on reaching the responsive peoples of the world. We sought to plant churches and train leaders among those who were ripe for harvesting. Networks of churches formed and Bible schools were started as these efforts matured. But in recent years we have shifted to taking the gospel to those who have never heard. In most cases, a large part of the reason they haven’t heard is because their culture, and perhaps their government, is hostile to the message of Christ. It is dangerous work.
Many of our new workers are heading to those places. Getting kicked out of countries is likely. Imprisonment, physical violence and even death are possibilities. There will be no newsletters or Facebook posts from these unsung heroes of the faith. In our hyper-connected world an email or Instagram post can mean deportation so they rely on the prayers of those who are sensitive to the voice of the Spirit.
Often in America church life is marked by entertainment and socializing. “Fun, Friends, and Jesus.” The gospel is presented as a means to make life better. Relationships can be healed, addictions can be broken, and blessings can be enjoyed. This is true, but what if accepting the gospel meant losing your job or your family? What if instead of healing it meant torture? What if it carried with it a death sentence?
Would you share the gospel with a co-worker if you knew that becoming a Christ-follower would mean losing his family and perhaps being killed? Would you be willing to go somewhere to share the gospel if the penalty for doing so was jail? Is it worth it?
Heaven and hell hang in the balance. The New Testament church experienced all of these things and continued to grow in numbers and in the power of the Spirit. In the same way, the Alliance is seeing people come to faith in the darkest regions of the world. The work is difficult and daily difficulties must be faced, but seeds are being sown and frequently a harvest is being reaped as well.
This Council made me glad to be a part of C&MA, a bunch of irregular people filled with a desire to know Jesus and make him known to ends of the earth.
Oh, that pioneering work in the Congo that started back in 1884 has born fruit. Those Spirit-led risks have resulted in over a million and a half people in the DRC worshipping Jesus today! May the Lord use us in the same way today.
- Pastor Karl Emerson
Prayer rooms are interesting places. The Lord has a way of sneaking up on you while you are in them. Just today I was spending some time praying through the requests from the people in our church. They filled a basket. There were dozens of requests for healing. Cancer, MS, back problems, and heart issues were mentioned multiple times. Then there were the requests for marriage problems. And requests for the breaking of addictions. And requests for the salvation of so many friends and family members.
I’ve prayed through many such requests before. But today was different. The requests began to feel like an overwhelming weight. The more prayer cards I looked at, the heavier they seemed. Its weight was oppressive, almost crushing. And strangely familiar.
Suddenly, I had a flashback to the Saddam Hussein Museum in Kurdish Iraq. Friends had taken me there. It was a converted jail and what was displayed were the unspeakable horrors that the regime’s prisoners suffered at the hands of the brutal jailers. The scene in my mind changed again and I was on a mountaintop not far from Strasbourg. It is an idyllic place, except for what happened there: Nazi medical “experiments” on interned Jews. Few survived the barbaric procedures. The images in my head shifted again and I was at the Dachau concentration camp. Do I even need to recount the things that happened there? All three places had the same nefarious spirit.
Such was the heaviness that I felt as I leafed through the prayer requests this morning. It was the feeling of the grinding agony of the hopeless captive. And I was feeling just the pain of a handful of requests for deliverance from suffering from the people known by this church. Pain, broken relationships, and addictions were painful shackles on so many people, and this was just a fraction of the people in my city.
Then I remembered walking away from the ovens at Dachau with tears in my eyes and anger in my soul. I looked at my son and said with gritted teeth, “If ever there was a reason for war, stopping this would be it.”
Sitting in the prayer room this morning I realized something. The weight I felt and the anger I felt were exactly the things that the Lord felt as he looked at a world held captive by sin. People were tortured and deceived by Satan and faced eternal suffering. The prisoners had no hope and no possibility of escape from their bondage, unless God did something.
The cost would be enormous. It would be a battle unlike any other. He would send his only Son to fight for the release of the captives. His Son would freely give himself to be tortured and executed. During his execution, he would not only suffer physical agony but he would have the guilt of every sin placed upon him. It would crush him.
He did it to set the captives free. He did it to put an end to suffering. There is hope. There is a way out of the suffering, a path to freedom from addiction, and release from the prison of sin.
I began to pray with new fervency. The situations on the prayer cards in my hand were not hopeless. The battle had been waged on Calvary and victory declared at the tomb. The wounded can be healed. The broken can be mended. The captives can be set free. There is a way out of the prison.
Jesus reigns victorious. Satan has been defeated. Hallelujah!
Strasbourg, France. The stunned gasp from the congregation was totally unexpected. I racked my brain trying to figure out what had happened. I had been preaching and used a big theological word and suddenly realized that many of the non-native English speakers in the room might not know the word. So, I had stopped and asked if someone could define the word for the benefit of everyone. A young American university student raised his hand and I called on him.
His definition of the term was correct, but contained several equally difficult theological terms. I rolled my eyes and said, “Thanks, that was SO helpful. It REALLY cleared things up.” He, and a few others in the room laughed, but their laughter was drowned out by the loud gasp of many others in the room. What could the problem be?
I suddenly realized that I was the cause of the gasp. Rather than understanding my remark as light-hearted teasing, many thought that I had ridiculed a young man’s attempt to be helpful. He had been bold enough to answer my question, and I had made fun of him in front of everyone.
The awkwardness was a common problem in France. The humor of one culture doesn’t translate well into other cultures. On the Iron Range of northern Minnesota, where I had spent 14 years, the teasing among friends was almost constant. But in France, I would think of some quick retort only to find it falling flat and the people around me looking confused or sometimes hurt. I found myself constantly find myself biting my tongue to keep from saying things that people wouldn’t think were funny.
One of the things that I noticed was that American humor (along with British humor) tends to be filled with sarcasm. It is the quick jibe or clever put-down that gets the laugh. The late Don Rickles was a master at it. Living in Strasbourg, I learned to restrain myself. There were also difficult conversations trying to explain that if Americans said something that seemed mean to you, it probably meant that they actually like you. It reminded me of a pastor I knew who was devastated when he woke up and saw toilet paper hanging from all the trees in his yard. He assumed that someone in the church hated him and had a hard time understanding that the youth group had done it because they loved him!
Now that I am back in the United States, I find my tongue is looser. But I don’t like what is coming out. The light-hearted put-down which so rapidly comes to my mind tastes sour, even though my intent is to build relationships! The sarcastic quip doesn’t feel “right” anymore. But why? Is it one of those things that is just a normal part of culture and requires some “translation” to understand (like toilet papering someone’s house), or is there something else going on?
Since I observed that much of American humor is sarcasm, I decided to look up the word in the Bible. While there are examples of sarcasm in the Bible, the word itself isn’t found there. Interestingly, the word sarcasm comes from a Greek word meaning “to strip or cut the flesh”. The dictionary goes on to define the English word to mean “the use of remarks that clearly mean the opposite of what they say, made in order to hurt someone's feelings or to criticize something in a humorous way.” So, we use the excuse of humor to say things that can wound or injure others. After all, we were only joking!
I did some more searching online about sarcasm and came across several interesting sites that were devoted to fiction writing. They said that sarcasm in dialogue can be used to show that a character in a story is cynical, bitter, and usually arrogant. Sarcastic characters are typically impatient and do not respect the person at whom the sarcastic comment is made. Those character traits didn’t seem to fit with the fruit of the Spirit. Things like love, joy, peace, and patience hardly produce snarky sarcastic comments.
Then I ran across a quote from Ellen DeGeneres (of all people). Here’s what she said, “Most comedy is based on getting a laugh at someone else’s expense. And I find that’s just a form of bullying in a major way.” That made me pause and think about the quick-witted jest that tears at someone’s flesh just to get a laugh. It is not really much different than the brute who pushes the little kid into the mud puddle because it is funny.
This way of joking is a far cry from Ephesians 4:29. “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouth, but only that which is useful for building others up according to their needs so that it will benefit those who listen.”
What is the driving force of the sarcastic quip? Perhaps it is a desire to fit in with a group of people that loves put-downs. We all feel the desire to be accepted by others, but you would think that we would have overcome succumbing to peer pressure when we left our teen years behind. Perhaps there is bitterness or arrogance inside of us. Perhaps we are cynical and have become deeply pessimistic. Perhaps we harbor a secret desire to tear others down to make ourselves feel better or to look good. These things poison the well from which our speech flows. They cause us to excuse hurtful speech in the name of humor.
As followers of Christ, we are called to live lives of radical love. When our hearts are full of his love, our mouths will be filled with a sweetness that will build others up according to their needs. Our desire to encourage others should far outweigh our need to fit in with a group that loves to tear one another down. And so, I am setting a guard over my mouth these days. But even more, I am paying attention to the words I speak and asking the Lord to reveal what is behind what I am saying. I want my words to be full of grace and seasoned with salt so that it will benefit all who hear them. To do that I need to be willing to look at the source from which my words flow.
May the words of our mouth and the meditations of our heart be pleasing in His sight (Psalm 19:14).
Word of Life Staff
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