Random Thoughts and Ramblings on Being a Moderate in the UMC and The Way Forward

slide-5-communion-of-saints“You need to pick a side.”

“Don’t you believe in scripture?”

“If you don’t pick a side, your opinion doesn’t matter.”

These are actual statements made by various people in response to my right-center position within the United Methodist Church.

I have had everything form my fitness for ministry to my very faith called into question because I refuse to choose a faction with which to align in the human sexuality debate, being it WCA, RMN, Good News, or whatever the cool caucus group of the week is. This has been done by people involved on the left and the right. Frankly, such comments are ridiculous and are largely why there are many like me who refuse to “pick a side.”

I can’t take these people seriously.

Anytime I have brought up this topic, almost without fail the discussion has devolved into unhelpful banter and accusation making. I acknowledge my faults in this and acknowledge that I often can present my arguments better. But, I feel this also illustrates a symptom of a larger problem. We simply don’t know how to discuss tough topics, of which this is probably one of the toughest. We don’t like our view challenged and tend to think the worst of the person on the opposite side of the argument (again, something I have been guilty of). Conservatives assume that progressives are trying to turn the United Methodist Church into a body that worships the devil. Progressives assume that conservatives are trying to turn the church into the church equivalent of a country club.

We (and I definitely include myself) must stop assuming the worst about each other.

We also need to stop thinking that those in the center are apathetic and wishy-washy. I am honestly very frustrated over this more than anything else. My views don’t fit in a box. But here’s what I can say for sure and easily: I know good people on the left and the right (and so do you). I know good people who love Jesus more than anything else and are seeking to give the best witness they possibly can – and these people exist on both the left and the right. Another thing I know is that if we all sat down at tables and had real, deep, challenging discussions we would find out that we all have much more things that we agree on than we do things that we disagree with.

Left, right, center, whatever, we are all made in God’s image.

I think many of us are going to be surprised that there are people we know to hold opposing political views, people who we know only as prostitutes, thieves, adulterers, and others who we view as unfit in the presence of God along with us. We are all afforded the opportunity to accept God’s gift of grace, mercy, and reconciliation. Yes, even the people we don’t like. We have got to figure out a way to get along. This is our mandate as Christians. For my part in stoking the fires of discord, I repent.

But for being somewhere in the middle of what I think the UMC should do, I do not apologize. In his book Being United Methodist in the Bible Belt, F. Belton Joyner likened being a United Methodist to being a passenger on a large tour bus with Jesus driving us all to the same place. All of us together, regardless of our differences. Personally, if there is any way to do so, I would like to keep it that way.

Life is much better when we are together.

Jonathan

It’s Time For Some Tough Love

widetableFriends, it’s time for a dose of reality and some tough love. First of all, I am sick and tired of all the bruhaha over NFL players kneeling, standing, not standing, staying in the tunnel, staying in the locker room, or whatever they choose to do. My social media feeds have been filled with nothing but reactions for and against the actions that NFL players, coaches, and owners took or did not take in response to President Trump’s remarks calling for the firing of NFL players who protest during the national anthem (the fact that he used language that I would rather he didnt is another story). There has been great passion displayed by people arguing on both sides of the issue, a passion that I admire and find very commendable.

I just wish we would show this much passion about things that actually matter.

One thing I have noticed during my existence in this world is that we tend to display lots of passion about sports, politics, and which celebrity is pregnant this week. However, that same passion is rarely placed where it is actually needed. Our priorities are all messed up. We care about things that have absolutely no bearing on the greater good of the world and care little to none about suffering, oppression, and the other things that we really should be so passionate about. While we (collectively) have been pouring our energy into what an athlete does or does not do during the national anthem, here’s what I did not hear much about.

  • The entire island of Puerto Rico – very much part of the United States as they are a territory – is without electricity or communication. Most of their houses have been severely damaged or destroyed. Their supply lines are all but completely shut off. They are in desperate need of aid and it may take years for the Puerto Ricans to recover. The damage has been described as “apocalyptic.” On top of all of that, a dam was heavily damaged and is likely to completely fail.
  • A mass shooting in Antioch, Tennessee at Burnette Chapel Church of Christ killed one and wounded six others, mostly older people who had gathered for worship. The local media reports say that if an usher had not intervened to fight the shooter, the situation could have been much worse. One of the wounded is their pastor, Rev. Joey Spann, and he remains in critical condition. It’s unknown what the motive of the shooting is.
  • People in Florida, Texas, and other places impacted by recent hurricanes are continuing to recover from the damage sustained during those storms. People are still living in shelters and many have no homes to go to.
  • Homelessness still exists, children are still going hungry, people are still addicted to drugs and alcohol, and families are still being torn apart due to these addictions and much more.

As long as these things are in existence, I simply don’t have time to worry about what someone does or does not do when the national anthem is played. And, frankly, if you’re a Christian… Neither do you.

The Old and New Testaments are rife with teachings about caring for the poor, seeking justice for the oppressed, loving our neighbors, and being kind but it seems like we ignore those things. We expend so much time and energy on petty political differences when we could be putting our energy into much more productive endeavors. If we used that energy toward ending hunger and homelessness, those issues would be gone tomorrow. If we used all that energy to working to end drug and alcohol addiction, the number of lives changed for the better would be astounding.

If you are a Christian and spend more time behind a keyboard or holding a smartphone using it to argue political ideology than you do working on things that break God’s heart, you’re not in line with the teachings of Jesus (I include myself in this rebuke). Does that sting? Good, it should.

We need to do better by using our passion and energy toward things that actually matter. In ten years, I can promise you that what an athlete or a team choose to do during the national anthem will not have one bit of bearing on anyone’s’ life. In ten years, we likely won’t even remember that this was a debate. But in ten years, someone could have a better life or even be alive in the first place because you put the phone down and invested in your energy into something – or someone – that actually matters.

And if you’re a Christian, that’s your duty as a disciple.

Patriotism in Church

bible-american-flag1There was a time when I was a volunteer firefighter. Sometime after I joined with Stonewall Fire and Rescue, I was having a conversation with the chief, at the time it was a man named Jimmy Andrews, and he told me something that I have continued to remember even since I have moved on from being a firefighter. Jimmy said that when he first became a firefighter he heard someone say that the following should be one’s main priorities (and in this order): God, country, family, the fire department, and everything else. Someone else once told me to always make sure that I “keep the Main Thing the main thing.” The takeaway from both of these bits of wisdom is that God should always be the number one priority over all else in our lives, period. When we worship we should always make sure we remember that we are participants in a service for an audience of one: God. We are to worship him and no one or nothing else.

We especially need to remember to keep the Main Thing the main thing when we gather to worship. When we worship we should always make sure we remember that we are participants in a service for an audience of one: God. We are to worship him and no one or nothing else. Now, that should be obvious but I feel like we can sometimes get carried away with celebrating other things to the point that it becomes idolatry. In other words, we forget to keep the Main Thing the main thing.

I’m proud of my country and I love the fact that we, as Americans, have a lot of freedom that we tend to take for granted. We are able to speak our minds, able to gather in worship, able to choose our elected officials and pursue our lives as we see fit. We can come and go as we please without a government official checking our “papers” every few miles. These are things we should be thankful and I feel that it’s appropriate for us to give thanks to God for these freedoms and for our country. Having a flag in the sanctuary is OK. I even like belting out “God Bless America” on Sundays around the patriotic holidays. These things are fine and, so long as they are done properly, I believe they are acceptable to God. But we do have to be careful not to cross a line and make our worship activities more about Lady Liberty, Uncle Sam, and Old Glory than about the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

A few days ago I read an account of last Sunday’s worship service at First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas. I have to be very honest: Reading about this service – and watching some of it – made me very uncomfortable and I can’t honestly say that I would have wanted to be a participant in it. The author points out that the worship service was much more about American and very little about God.

The fact that there was a red, white, and blue hued cross made me cringe.

To me, this is a major problem that, unfortunately, seems to be an issue that is becoming more and more prevalent in churches in the United States. This does not seem confined to any particular denomination or type of church but more and more American Christians are equating their faith with their patriotism. This is nothing short of idolatry. In celebrating our country, we must be very careful to make sure that we do not place our loyalty to our homeland equal to or even greater than our loyalty to God. Our love for anything (or anyone) should not be equal to or greater than our love for God.

In scripture, we are reminded that we are to place nothing – absolutely nothing – above God. When God told the Israelites, “You must not have any other god but me” (Exodus 20:3 NLT) he wasn’t just talking about a statue of Buddha or the like. An idol can be anything that we are willing to worship or otherwise place above God. This includes patriotism. I want to emphasize that it is perfectly alright to be thankful for our country and to celebrate that blessing but we must be careful to make sure that we do not do so at the expense of our loyalty to God.

We must keep the Main Thing the main thing.

When a celebration of anything overshadows God in a worship service, the line between acceptable and unacceptable has not only been crossed, it has been ignored altogether. It’s also worth noting that in many countries such celebrations are virtually unheard of in Christian worship. I look back on the Wesleyan Pilgrimage I set out on last summer and out of all the churches I visited in England – Methodist or Anglican – I can not recall one that had a Union Jack anywhere on or in the building.

All I’m saying is that we must be careful to make sure that we do not cross a line that should not be crossed.

Inevitably, someone is likely going to accuse me of not being a patriot or of condemning those who do acknowledge patriotic holidays during worship. That could not be farther from the truth. Sing a patriotic song recognize the military, say a prayer of thanks for our freedom (we will be doing all of these things at Shiloh this Sunday). I am not against these things. I am against a worship service not being centered on God and centered on other things, be it a nation, a celebrity, or anything else that is not God. These thoughts – which are mine and mine only – are only intended to serve as food for thought as to what boundaries should be set.

I will close with the words of the author of the article I linked above, as his concerns are also mine.

What would a Christian from another country say? Would they recognize their place in this church?

What about those for whom this has not been such a great country? What about those who still bear the stripes callously inflicted upon their ancestors’ backs?

What about those who don’t claim the Christian faith? Would they come away from such a celebration understanding anything about the gospel of Christ, and hear its call on their lives?

What would happen if Jesus showed up in the flesh? Would we recognize him as our guest of honor? Would we even recognize him at all? (emphasis his)

I don’t think so.

Ladies and gentlemen, something has gone desperately wrong.

God, forgive us.

And may it be so, Lord. Amen.

Worship is Active Work, Not Passive Consumption

liturgysermonseriesslideOne time I overheard a conversation between two people who were discussing their churches. From what I could pick up, one went to a church within the mainline denominations and the other went to a non-denominational church. The topic of their worship services came up and the man who worshiped in the mainline congregation was describing what sounded like a service that included a lot of ritual (think a traditional Methodist or Episcopalian service – it seemed to be along those lines). His friend said, “Well, that sounds nice but I don’t believe in all that ritual and, what’s the word, liturgical stuff. We don’t do that at my church.”

Oh, yes you do.

Every worship service has a liturgy. The word “liturgy” at its core derives from Greek which is translated “public work.” Another way to say it is, “the work of the people.” Further derivations of these words become “minister.” All of this to say, the work we do in the public setting of the worship service is a liturgy. So, it does not matter what the name on the sign of the church says, all churches have a liturgy.

It’s in keeping with this notion that all worship services have a liturgy and the origin of the word that I bring this next point: The word worship is a verb. The definition is, “to show reverence and adoration for (a deity); honor with religious rites; to take part in a religious ceremony.”

Worship is meant to be an active means of grace. It’s meant to be more than sitting idly in the pew or singing with very little effort. We are called to give our entire being to the worship of God, to engage all of our senses (yes, even taste, by means of Holy Communion) and our intellect into pouring our praise for and awe of God. We should engage our passion into worship and find joy in the worship of the risen Christ who died and rose again for us.

But I do want us to remember something: Worship, liturgy, is work. Work is not always fun and work is something we do in order to accomplish an important goal. Work also means that we often have to do things that are not our preferred way of doing them. But even more important than having our preferences met is knowing that we direct our worship to and only to God.

Worship is, indeed, work, but it’s holy work and work that we do for God. Do we take it seriously? Do we remember that worship is an active engagement of our entire being and not just a passive activity we do our of sheer obligation or tradition? We must be honest with ourselves and ponder these questions for ourselves and act accordingly.

Perhaps what needs to change is not the style of worship in our churches but our attitudes toward worship. Worship is work and the work is not done by us for us.

Worship is work done by us for God.

Cultural Christians

widetableDuring my first break from class today, I found an article published by The Babylon Bee that, while a parody, also had a ton of truth to it. If you’re not familiar with the Bee, this is a blog that lampoons the most cliche aspects of Christianity, particularly to the culture of Christianity. In this instance, the article is entitled “Local Pastor Longs For Good Old Days When America Pretended To Be A Christian Nation.” Here is a quote:

“’I don’t like it. I don’t like it one bit,’ Reverend Frank Baxter of Garden Falls United Methodist Church reportedly lamented to parishioners at Wednesday’s potluck. ‘On Sundays, Americans used to close their businesses, shine up their shoes, and wear their very best clothes. Sure, they were sin-laden enemies of the Almighty and objects of His wrath, but at least they had the common decency to act like they weren’t.’”

While this is a completely made up statement by a completely made up figure, the sentiment expressed is all too often heard. I have heard similar statements from a variety of people, lay and clergy. When such statements are made, I think it’s a sign that the person saying it has missed something major that is occurring within our churches and within the Christian faith. First, it should be pointed out that congregations should not base their effectiveness solely on attendance figures. It’s not merely about numbers.

The “decline” we are witnessing in American Christianity is actually the death throes of cultural Christianity. This is a cutting away of the dead branches from the vine.

Jesus used such an analogy in John 15 when he told the parable of his being the vine, we (his followers/disciples) being the branches, and the Father being the gardener. Jesus makes it clear that the branches that do not produce fruit are cut off while the ones that do produce fruit are pruned and tended to. The fruits include such things as patience, love, kindness, works… all of this in response to our faith.

Simply showing up to church because “it’s what we do” (in other words, going through the motions) does not generally produce spiritual fruit.

Jesus did warn of the dangers of being a “lukewarm” Christian. John of Patmos recorded these words of Jesus to the Church in Laodicea:

“I know all the things you do, that you are neither hot nor cold. I wish that you were one or the other! But since you are like lukewarm water, neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth! You say, ‘I am rich. I have everything I want. I don’t need a thing!’ And you don’t realize that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked.” Revelation 3:15-17 (NLT)

I believe that the church is going to be much stronger than she is now. Contrary to what many of us want to believe, this is not all about numbers. This is about the discipleship fruit that is produced by believers. Cultural Christianity contributes nothing to the well-being of one’s soul because simply doing what is expected is not going to cause one to be made new. Yes, the church hit its heyday in the 1950s in terms of numbers, but this was also largely a cultural phenomenon. One was expected to go to church. One could lose business relationships, elections, and other standing for either not attending a church or by not attending the “right” church. Many used Christianity as a means to an end, thus many of these cultural Christians had no faith whatsoever. I won’t presume to judge the destination of their souls, but I will say that scripture is clear on the consequences of unbelief and non-repentance. If one is merely using their church as a means to an end, what does this say about their faith? (I understand this is strictly between God and the person, but the truth of the matter remains)

If one is merely using their church as a means to an end, what does this say about their faith? (I understand this is strictly between God and the person, but the truth of the matter remains)

The dying away of cultural Christianity is actually a good thing. Those who remain faithful will be proven to be the ones who truly love God, truly follow Christ, and who want to go out and make disciples. I actually welcome the time where not everyone attends worship or believes in God. I would rather someone truly believe because they have faith rather than claim to believe because they feel that claiming a faith will benefit them somehow.

Let’s remember that faith is not about numbers, bur rather it’s about transormation and dedication.

Sermon: Half Truths – “God Said It, I Believe It, That Settles It”

mainslide-half-truthsThis is the fourth in a five week series based on Adam Hamilton’s book Half Truths. I particularly enjoyed researching this saying. I hope you will enjoy this sermon. As always, please feel free to share any feedback you may have! – Jonathan

Half Truths: God Said It, I Believe It, That Settles It
A Sermon Preached at Shiloh United Methodist Church – Stanton, KY
Rev. Jonathan K. Tullos
September 4, 2016

1 Peter 2:13-14 (NLT)

13 For the Lord’s sake, submit to all human authority—whether the king as head of state, 14 or the officials he has appointed. For the king has sent them to punish those who do wrong and to honor those who do right.

One of the greatest things I have experienced in my career as a paramedic has been that I have been able to have some great partners. I’ve had a few that I would rather forget and many who I am grateful for and will never forget. One of those great partners was Brother Mike. Brother Mike is an ordained Southern Baptist pastor who serves a small church near my hometown. At the time he was only drawing a part time salary so he worked at the ambulance service on my shift to pay his bills. As we were both pastors we were regularly put together. We always seemed to have unique opportunities to minister to many people we would come into contact with and we also got to have many great conversations about our faith, about God himself and about the Bible. As he is Baptist and I’m Methodist, you can imagine that while we did agree on many things we had some interesting conversations about the views we held differently.

One such conversation happened when we were on our way back to town from a transfer We were talking about scripture and how to best understand it. I had just taken a workshop on the various ways we can look at the bible and one of the things the presenter covered heavily was how John Wesley used scripture itself, tradition, reason, and experience to determine if what he was hearing, reading, or believing was true. Brother Mike listened to me and said, “Well, that sounds nice but I’ve always been of the opinion that we should just take the Bible as it is, unvarnished, and as God’s word. He said it, I believe it, that settles it.” This was not the first time I had heard this expression. Being in Mississippi and growing up around a lot of Baptists, one heard this saying quite a bit. In light of what I had been learning through my own study of how to understand scripture, this was the first occasion where I can remember truly pondering the meaning of this saying.

During this series on Half Truths, we have been looking at sayings that sound biblical but really aren’t, at least not in the way we say them. I acknowledge that with you knowing how I have treated the other sayings you may be growing a little uncomfortable right now, perhaps because you think that perhaps I’m going to make a case for why we can’t trust the Bible. I assure you, that’s not what I’m out to do. But what I do want to challenge you to do today is to think about how you have understood scripture and perhaps to consider a new way to think about what we read and hear about. The point that I want to make is this: We are not meant to check our brains at the church door and just take things at face value. It’s ok to question and to wrestle with things we read in scripture. God gave us brains and I believe we should use them to our fullest ability, including when we read the Bible. To simply take the Bible at face value and chalk it up to “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” shows a very simplistic view of the Bible. We don’t truly get the message, we simply get a few grapes off the vine and call it good.

Perhaps you were raised in a similar fashion as me: If something was in the Bible, you better not dare question it. I can remember when I was growing up that I would ask someone what something in the Bible meant or why it was there and more often than not I was simply told that it’s a sin to questions something we read in the Bible because it’s God’s word. I certainly believe that the Bible is God’s inspired word. But I don’t believe this means that things we see within the pages of these books are not above being questioned, pondered and wrestled with. Think of exercise: If you want bigger muscles, you have to exercise them. When you lift weights you are pushing against a force putting resistence against your body. By pushing against this resistance you’re growing stronger and can exercise with more and more weight. The next thing you know, you’re in a great shape and can even keep going.

The same is true when we flex our spiritual muscles and push against the resistance of questions and doubt. When we wrestle with the things in the Bible that we may not understand or perhaps even make us uncomfortable, we are opening ourselves to truly hearing God’s voice and the message he wants us to receive from his word. As we continue to wrestle, to pray, ponder, and study we grow stronger in our faith and in our knowledge of God’s will and nature. It’s ok to question and wrestle. Doing such exercise is how we get in better shape.

The short passage I read out of 1 Peter 2 is one of those passages that is often wrestled with. If we take literally and completely at face value what we read in Peter’s letter we may believe that God wants us to bow down and kowtow to all of our earthly leaders no matter what, period, full stop. We can think that it’s our God-decreed responsibility to, without question, follow the commands of any earthly leader no matter who this person is or what they ask us to do. But what if the leader is a dictator like Kim Jong Un of North Korea, who starves his people to death while getting rich off of their backs. His latest shenanigans involve his education minister who fell asleep during a meeting of the Communist leadership of North Korea. Kim Jong Un was so incensed by this transgression that he executed two high level North Korean officials… with a large caliber anti-aircraft gun. If we take 1 Peter 2 literally, are we to believe that this is someone worthy of giving our undying obedience to?

The simple answer is, of course not! No tyrant should ever be given this kind of affection and God certainly wouldn’t ordain such actions. Such is the danger of taking such passages literally at face value without regard to its true meaning. Taking 1 Peter 2 literally has several dangers, including that we could in theory use it to force someone to bow down to tyranny or, perhaps even worse, to express a notion that God condones such dictators and their actions. Yes, that people like Kim Jong Un, Hitler, and all of the worst dictators throughout history were put in their positions by God and that he orchestrated their actions. This is, of course, untrue and can cast God in a poor and false light. To be clear: God does not do these things. Such is not God’s nature!

We are not people called to check our brains at the church house door and leave them there. Christians are called to use our intellect to figure these things out and, yes, this even applies to when we come to worship and when we study the Bible. We have all sorts of tools for doing this, from commentaries to study Bibles and so much more. When I prepare for a sermon I not only study over the scripture itself extensively but I also take time to pray over it to ask God’s revelation for it. I also consult multiple commentaries, dictionaries, handbooks, and often look at Greek or Hebrew interlinear Bibles, which show the English and original languages in order to flesh it all out. My sermons may seem long but believe it or not they only average about 20 minutes or so. In order to prepare for that 20 minute sermon, I spend many hours per week in study.

If we were even intended to look at scripture through the lens of “God said it, I believe it, that settles it,” then me spending all that time in prayer, preparation and writing in order to be standing up here preaching about God’s word would be a waste of time for both me and you. All we would have to do is read our Bibles and just let that be that. It’s really wrestling with scripture and trying to figure out the true message that draws us closer to God. Grappling and meditating on God’s word is the stuff that helps us to grow in our faith and in our understanding about God. It’s also in the course of this exercise that we become better equipped as disciples who will go from this place to make other disciples.

If we want to believe in terms of scripture that God said it then we totally remove the human equation from scripture. In other words, we remove the humanity of the authors who wrote down these words under divine inspiration. We have to remember that these were human beings who were inspired by God to write and to tell of things they were feeling in their very souls. To believe that this is God always speaking through them is to believe that God was dictating a message to robotic secretaries in this world and I just do not see how that could be true. Scripture itself does not indicate that this is the case. There are certainly a lot of places where the writer indicates that the words are from God but the vast majority of the time the authors make it clear that they are writing their own thoughts and ideas about what God’s will is for mankind. Even Paul never claimed that he and God were of one mind, Paul in several places very plainly states that the words written are his and his alone. To state that “God said it” means we totally remove humanity from scripture.

Yes, God inspired scripture. God is sometimes quoted in scripture. But did God dictate every word of the Bible? Not very likely. To simply say that “God said it” when it comes to any given piece of scripture just is not usually true and oversimplifies the message that scripture contains.

A similar thing happens when we say “That settles it.” We oversimplify the work that it takes to really get at the heart of what scripture is saying to us. It takes away the important work which has been done in translating from the original languages and trying to figure out what the author intended for the reader to understand. Let’s take a look at John 3:16, which I’m sure every single one of us can at least paraphrase. In the verse where perish is rendered, the Greek word is apollumi and it can indeed mean perish. But it can also mean to die, to be destroyed, to be lost, killed, or ruined. Each one of those possibilities can make the message of the verse slightly different depending on which translation one decides is most appropriate given the context and other factors.

Even Jesus at times did not agree with the traditional rendering of texts in the ancient Jewish tradition. How often in the gospels is it recorded him saying something like, “You have heard it said… But I tell you…?” Jesus was doing a type of push back against traditional interpretation called midrash, where rabbis would attempt to explain what a text was talking about. As the apostles studied and debated about the meaning of scripture, they also realized that the authors of these writings were, at the end of the day, humans. Even under the inspiration of God they were not immune from bringing their own experiences and circumstances into their writings. If we were in the room with them and simply said, “Well God said it, I believe it, that settles it” they may well look at us as if we’re crazy. They simply did not subscribe to that notion. The same goes for the majority of the early church fathers.

We can all sit around all day and debate how to best determine what a passage of scripture is saying and how we should apply it to our lives. Even when we disagree about these methods, I believe we can all agree on one thing. Jesus gave us the best lens through which we can weigh out what scripture is saying when he gave us the greatest commandment, to love God with all our soul, mind, body, and strength and to love our neighbors as ourselves. Does the way we interpret a passage line up to that? Does the way in which we feel we are called to apply the scripture to our way of living line up with loving God and loving our neighbor? If the answers are no then we still have some work to do. We need to get some more exercise. Let’s make a new commitment to stretch and strengthen our spiritual muscles. In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit – Amen.

Sermon – Half Truths: God Won’t Give You More than You Can Handle

Continuing the series based on Adam Hamilton’s Half Truths, today I talked about the popular platitude that suggests that God will shield us from more life drama than we can handle. Anyone who has ever had a nervous breakdown knows that this isn’t true. While I didn’t outright address it in the course of the sermon, mental health issues are often looked at as a lack of faith or a sign of sin in one’s life. I want to emphasize that this is not true! Our problems don’t come from God. I hope you will receive a blessing from this sermon and know the way that 1 Corinthians 10:13 is often understood is not quite accurate. A note: I spend some time talking about my battle with anxiety and depression so be warned.

Half Truths: God Won’t Give You More Than You Can Handle
A Sermon Preached at Shiloh United Methodist Church – Stanton, KY
Rev. Jonathan K. Tullos
August 28h, 2016

1 Corinthians 10:1-14 (NLT)
I don’t want you to forget, dear brothers and sisters, about our ancestors in the wilderness long ago. All of them were guided by a cloud that moved ahead of them, and all of them walked through the sea on dry ground. 2 In the cloud and in the sea, all of them were baptized as followers of Moses. 3 All of them ate the same spiritual food, 4 and all of them drank the same spiritual water. For they drank from the spiritual rock that traveled with them, and that rock was Christ. 5 Yet God was not pleased with most of them, and their bodies were scattered in the wilderness.

6 These things happened as a warning to us, so that we would not crave evil things as they did, 7 or worship idols as some of them did. As the Scriptures say, “The people celebrated with feasting and drinking, and they indulged in pagan revelry.” 8 And we must not engage in sexual immorality as some of them did, causing 23,000 of them to die in one day.

9 Nor should we put Christ  to the test, as some of them did and then died from snakebites. 10 And don’t grumble as some of them did, and then were destroyed by the angel of death. 11 These things happened to them as examples for us. They were written down to warn us who live at the end of the age.

12 If you think you are standing strong, be careful not to fall. 13 The temptations in your life are no different from what others experience. And God is faithful. He will not allow the temptation to be more than you can stand. When you are tempted, he will show you a way out so that you can endure.

14 So, my dear friends, flee from the worship of idols.

“God won’t give you more than you can handle.” I have heard this statement many times and I’m sure we have all said this statement at some point in our lives. One of the times I can recall most vividly hearing this phrase was about ten years ago. I was living in Fort Wayne, Indiana where I was working for one of the radio stations in town. The station wasn’t doing great. Advertising was down and some tough decisions had to be made by the management of the company that owned the station. Unfortunately, the status of my employment was one of the hard decisions which was made. I went home and tried to process everything that had occurred. I had lost a job that I mostly loved, lost the opportunity to work with people who I considered my family away from home and I was also faced with the reality that I had bills to pay. Obviously I was uncertain and upset.

I finally reached out to the leader of the small group that I was part of through the church I was attending at the time. Mike was fairly wise and I trusted him to give me advice. I left a voicemail and eventually he called me back to hear the story. After he offered to pray for me and my situation, which he did. And as he was about to hang up he sprang the Half Truth on me: “Remember that God will never give you more than you can handle.” I tried to remember Mike’s words as things progressed. I soon found another job and eventually I ended up moving back to Mississippi where I was so stressed by a lot of things that I had a mental breakdown. I was overloaded and simply could not cope. When this occurred Mike’s words seemed like utter hogwash.

Obviously these words are said with good intent. But in that instance, I found out the hard way that this Half Truth simply did not stand up to the practical test. I had more on my plate than I could handle. My ability to cope with everything going on at the time, both tangibly and mentally, were just too much for me to handle and I hit my psychological and spiritual rock bottom. There was a part of me that blamed God because I felt like He was punishing me because, in my mind, he had broken a promise made in scripture. I had more than I could handle and it took me a while to recover from my issues, my anger, and my crisis of faith which happened on top of everything else. I was a mess, a hot mess at that.

We want to think that nothing bad will ever happen to us or that we will never have more stress on us than we could conceivably handle. To state it simply, the idea that God will shield us from more trouble, stress, or drama than we can handle just is not true. 1 Corinthians 10:13 is often cited as the basis for the idea that God will somehow not allow us to be stressed out beyond what we can cope with. A plain reading of the scripture, however, does not reveal such a saying. This passage is not even dealing with everyday stress – more on on that in a moment. I will daresay that 1 Corinthians 10:13 is one of the most misquoted and misunderstood verses in the entire Bible. It’s one of those verses that we might think says one thing but really says another. This is also an example of how cherry picking scripture without regard to context is simply a poor way to read God’s word.

I think it’s safe to say that every single one of us have experienced times in our lives when we felt that the world was caving in all around us. We have all experienced times when we could not handle one more thing on our plates or we might just snap. I have some good news for you if you have ever felt that way: You’re not alone. Life teaches us that things are going to come at us, sometimes one thing after another, and that we will indeed, at some point, have more on us than we can handle. Such is part of the human condition. As I have mentioned before our troubles do not come from God. Let me say that again: The bad stuff in life, whether we’re talking about a major tragedy or even the everyday stresses of life, do not come from God. God does not give us troubles. But what he does is be present in those moments, ready to comfort, provide mercy, and healing to our souls. He loves us that much and he wants us to cling to him.

So what is it that Paul is talking about and what is the truth behind this Half Truth? Borrowing heavily from Adam Hamilton’s book Half Truths in addition to my own study, I will explore that.

The short version of the story is this: Paul is talking about temptation to sin, not about sparing us from stress. Paul was on one of his missionary journeys when he established Christianity in the Roman city of Corinth around 51 AD. Today we call Las Vegas “Sin City” but I would argue that Corinth is the original sin city. If you were a citizen of Corinth during this time and you went to buy meat, you may likely be eating meat from an animal which was sacrificed at one of the numerous pagan temples around the city. While some cities have a gas station or a Starbucks on every corner, Corinth had pagan temples on every corner. Within the walls of the temples occurred pagan worship. What we would call sexual immorality was one of the ways in which the Corinthian pagans worshiped and this even occurred within the walls of the temples. The reputation of the Corinthians was so pervasive that if someone was considered to be fast and loose with their morals they were said to be “living like a Corinthian.”

The new Christians of Corinth were trying to overcome these old habits but, as the old saying goes, old habits die hard. The temptation to give in to these pagan ways were literally everywhere they went. The could not escape the pagan temples because there were so many. They could not escape the temptations of the pagan ways because this was also all around them. By using the struggle of the ancient Israelites as an example, Paul was reminding the Corinthian Christians that their giving in to these temptations had spiritual and moral consequences. And then he states in verse 13, “The temptations in your life are no different from what others experience. And God is faithful. He will not allow the temptation to be more than you can stand. When you are tempted, he will show you a way out so that you can endure.”

Paul was giving the Corinthians encouragement and a good reminder that sin has consequences. He gave them an example of their spiritual ancestors (remember that he was dealing with mostly Gentiles). He was also reminding them that when God sees that we are tempted to commit some kind of sinful act, he will give us a way out even if it’s reminding us of who we are and whose we are. Do we always make the choice to take the way out and therefore not sin? Of course not! But it’s there and God provides it.

Paul was not saying that God tempts us but only a little bit, he was saying that God provides us a way out of the situation when we are tempted. But here’s what we really need to know about this verse of scripture: Paul was also not saying that God will not allow us to have more stress, chaos, and tragedy than we can handle. Unfortunately, these things will happen. But here is what we can count on from God: He will be present in the stress, chaos, and tragedy. He will be ready to provide relief. He will be with us through the storm. One of the things Paul is emphasizing here is not our human will prevailing but instead of God’s faithfulness. God is faithful to us in the midst of life.

Dr. Ben Witherington, a prolific author, theologian, and professor of New Testament at Asbury uses this phrase a lot and, as I like it, I do too: “A text without a context is merely a pretext for whatever you want it to be.” This is the case in 1 Corinthians 10:13. When we pick and choose bible verses and try to make them fit an idea that we have about God or perhaps just an idea that we like because it sounds nice, we miss the greater message of God’s word. We really do a disservice to ourselves and to our discipleship when we take what we consider to be the best parts and leave the rest. The result is a Half Truth.

Unfortunately, God does not promise that he won’t allow us to have more from life than we can handle. God does, however, promise that he is with us. When someone is struggling, I want us to remember that God is with them and us. Perhaps next time we want to use this Half Truth we can say something like, “God has not give this trouble to you but he is with you and loves you. And so do I.” Let’s turn this Half Truth into a whole truth. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit… Amen.