Saturday, July 28, 2012

Church Is For Children Too

I recently read a very good article arguing for the importance of adults bringing their children into the regular worship services with them. It is a practice that we have been following for many years at Immanuel Baptist Church (a Reformed Baptist Church where I am privileged to serve as the primary teaching elder), and we have both reaped and extolled the benefits over that time. But I doubt we have ever put the case so well as our brethren at Christ Reformed Baptist Church in Hales Corners, Wisconsin. The following is an article entitled Ministry to Children, which has been copied from their website:
Psalm 78:1-8 "Give ear, O my people, to my teaching; incline your ears to the words of my mouth! I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings from of old, things that we have heard and known, that our fathers have told us. We will not hide them from their children, but tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the LORD, and his might, and the wonders that he has done. He established a testimony in Jacob and appointed a law in Israel, which he commanded our fathers to teach to their children, that the next generation might know them, the children yet unborn, and arise and tell them to their children, so that they should set their hope in God and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments; and that they should not be like their fathers, a stubborn and rebellious generation, a generation whose heart was not steadfast, whose spirit was not faithful to God."
Perhaps the most natural impulse of the redeemed sinner is the desire to communicate to his children the wonderful things which he has learned of God. This psalm of Asaph shows us that our desire to communicate saving truth to the next generation is not only natural, but also it is correct and biblical; it is the command of God. Christians must communicate “the glorious deeds of the Lord” to their children. For a church to lack a plan to instruct the young in the things of God would be more than a trivial oversight.
Since this is a duty we must not overlook, we ought to give close attention to what Asaph is attempting in his song. He is going to tell “dark sayings from of old.” His message will not be simple and easy, nor will it be up-to-date and trendy. He will instead focus on those things “that our fathers have told us,” old truths which bear repeating even if they are not the simplest. Asaph does not focus here on finding an opening with his children, some way to be “relevant” with them, but on communicating to them an old message which has lost none of its true relevance. 
Asaph would communicate four specific details to his children and to all those of Israel. First, he would speak to them of the character of God. They will learn the glory of His deeds, and they must understand that He is mighty. He is beginning to teach them the basics of theology. Do we pay enough attention to the theological needs of our children?
He also intends to teach them the history of God’s work among men. The stories of the Bible are full of wonder. In fact they are more fascinating than the best works of fiction. Their appeal is greater because they are entirely true. What is more, these are stories about God, so we must understand.
Asaph will further explain to his children the covenant, which is the “testimony” which God established with Israel. One of the difficulties encountered in teaching the Bible is that so many children know the stories but do not understand how they fit together. It is important for them to understand something of the rules according to which God dealt with His people.
That brings us to the fourth element of Asaph’s instruction: the law which God appointed in Israel. He recognizes that his children must understand what God requires of them. Do we share this concern? The teaching of the law may not be popular, but what greater lessons can our children learn?
These criteria present a tall order to those who would organize a program for the instruction of children in a church. Is it likely that a youth group or children’s church would pursue such lofty goals? Perhaps more to the point, would they succeed? One can easily imagine the criticism that would be leveled against such a program. It would seem old fashioned and stuffy. It would fail to relate to the kids where they are. It would be ill suited for a generation of video games and virtual reality. In fact, it would be scarcely distinguishable from church itself!
We would quickly discover that the aims of modern children’s ministry are rather different from Asaph’s goals. Children’s church has become the realm of games, pep-talks, and other amusements. Churches engage in a futile attempt to keep up with a massive and well-funded entertainment industry in order to keep kids plugged in to Christianity. Their priority is clear: church must be fun. Doctrine must be kept very simple; there can be no “dark sayings from of old.” Stories should be juiced up to attract wandering minds. The covenant is a complex subject best left to adults. The law? Kids have enough rules as it is.
If our children’s ministry plan is to meet the goals established by the psalmist, we clearly need a whole new paradigm. The multitude of websites dedicated to CM does not yield an answer. The church that would educate its children as Asaph educated his may need a fresh perspective. Before we pursue new trails, though, one thought merits further consideration. The type of instruction Asaph was talking about does sound an awful lot like church. The very idea of children’s church embodies the assumption that church is not suitable for children. Perhaps that assumption requires reexamination.
The nature and character of God, the great works of God in history, the covenant and laws of God: these are the subjects of sound biblical preaching. If these are the topics pursued and examined in our worship services, and if they are also the very type of instruction which our children require, are we trying too hard to reinvent the wheel? Do we not already have in place exactly what our children need?
Keeping children in the regular worship service is an idea become radical in recent years. Christians have accepted the verdict of the skeptic Samuel Clemens. They assume that any child forced to endure grown-up worship will spend his time like Tom Sawyer: counting requests in the pastoral prayer and playing with flies, waiting for the agony of the service to end. No one could expect a child to benefit from such an experience! Yet for countless generations children did participate in the regular worship of the church, and the perseverance of the church through the ages testifies that some, at least, did benefit.
Yet we must certainly acknowledge that a children’s service focused on the young minds will do a better job of communicating the truths of scripture to them! Must we? An examination of the practice of children’s church tells us that it communicates very little. Emphasis on relational ministry necessarily banishes doctrine. Once children are extricated from the tedium of regular worship, the content of the message must be extracted from children’s church lest the tedium be replicated. If we assume that content such as Asaph prescribes for children is too complicated and not to their liking, then any program we propose for them will necessarily fall short of the scriptural standard.
Our church is firmly committed to ministering to our children. We are determined to give them exactly the type of instruction which Asaph prescribes, and we know where they will receive it. The things “that our fathers have told us” concerning the character, works, covenant and laws of God are being proclaimed weekly in our worship services, and “we will not hide them from [our] children.” Perhaps we will supplement this ministry with Sunday School classes and like ministries aimed at furthering their spiritual education, but never at the expense of their participation in worship.
We are not opposed to allowing the parents of the very young an opportunity to participate in worship without the added duty of caring for an infant. In fact, we encourage parents to make use of a nursery. However, we find that in the great assemblies of the Bible, such as the time when Ezra read the law to Israel, the congregation included “all those who could understand.” We realize that babies do not understand, but we have observed that children begin to understand worship at a very early age. We will not deny children old enough to understand the opportunity to accompany their parents in worship.
In the regular service fathers may lead children and instruct them in the things of God. Some may respond that this is not so since in the worship only the preacher speaks. We find, though, that when fathers bring their children with them to worship, they are able to further instruct their children and apply the message which they have heard together. Otherwise families are stranded in often fruitless inquiry: “What did you learn today?” How much better it is for children to observe the piety of their parents and to see their faith acted out in worship.
We must ensure that our children are well taught, not just well entertained. Rather than dismiss them for an hour of amusement, we are committed to bring them to the place where God’s word is preached. Asaph suggests three reasons why they must know and understand that word.
First, they must know if future generations are also to know. Our hope is that “children yet unborn” will “arise and tell [these truths] to their children.” The great message of the gospel of Christ is yet alive in the world today because Christians of ages past have taught their children the truth. We would not fail in our responsibility to those generations following ours.
The second reason is for the benefit of the children themselves. Asaph writes, “so that they should set their hope in God.” We pray to see our children acquire true saving faith, and we must not forget that faith begins with knowledge of the truth. So also does obedience, and we desire to see our children “keep His commandments.” If we would see our children trusting in God and living their lives in His service, they must be taught His law and His gospel. We must not, then, shield them from His worship.
Finally, we wish to see our children participate in worship so that they will not be like the “stubborn and rebellious” generation that preceded them. What American Christian has not bemoaned the lack of biblical morality and true faith in our day? Who has not observed the dwindling influence of the church or longed for the day when God would shake the earth with His voice and call our nation to Himself? Do we not pray that our children will see greater results than we have? Do we not wish them to avoid our mistakes, to be greater than ourselves? Then let them begin now. Let them hear the voice of God while they are young, that they might follow it when old. Let them grow strong in the things of God now, that they might not be weak when their day is come. 
I hope you will agree with me that this is a Scriptural perspective on ministry to children in the local church. May God bless us with the courage and faithfulness to follow such Scriptural advice.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Anger at God is Never Right

The following advice comes from an article entitled Go Ahead, Be Angry at God! by a liberal writer named R. Adam DeBaugh:
Too often I hear people talk guiltily about feeling anger toward God. More often than not, we get angry at God over things over which we have no control. If we don't control it, God must - someone has to be in control! It may be a failed relationship. Or the death of a loved one. Or our cumulative grief over the on-going HIV/AIDS crisis. Or financial worries. Or any number of things about which we feel we have no control. So we are angry. And since no one else seems to be available to be angry at, we get angry at God. And we feel guilty. We feel we shouldn't get angry at God! We worry that God's feelings will be hurt. Or worse yet, God will return our anger - and we all know how much better at being angry God could be! Nonsense. I say, Go ahead, be angry at God!
Later in the same article DeBaugh goes on to assert again, “So go ahead, be angry at God. God can take it. There won't be any retribution from God. And you might be able to do some clear and constructive thinking about what made you angry after venting your emotions.”

I couldn't disagree more with this writer! First, I strongly question whether simply venting our anger is ever really helpful. The words of the Apostle James quickly come to mind here:
NKJ James 1:19-20 “So then, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath; 20 for the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God.”
Second, I disagree with DeBaugh that it is alright to be angry at God because anger toward a person typically assumes that the person has wronged you in some way. Consider, for example, these basic definitions of anger:
“belligerence aroused by a real or supposed wrong” (WordWeb)

“a strong feeling of displeasure and belligerence aroused by a wrong; wrath; ire” (Dictionary)

“a strong feeling of displeasure and usually of antagonism” (Merriam-Webster)
Now, even supposing the softer definition given by Merriam-Webster, which describes anger as a “strong feeling of displeasure,” one must wonder how a person could ever justly feel such displeasure against God unless he assumes that God has done something worthy of such displeasure and thus something that we would call wrong.

John Piper hits the nail on the head when he writes:
What is anger? The common definition is: “An intense emotional state induced by displeasure” (Merriam-Webster). But there is an ambiguity in this definition. You can be "displeased" by a thing or by a person. Anger at a thing does not contain indignation at a choice or an act. We simply don't like the effect of the thing: the broken clutch, or the grain of sand that just blew in our eye, or rain on our picnic. But when we get angry at a person, we are displeased with a choice they made and an act they performed. Anger at a person always implies strong disapproval. If you are angry at me, you think I have done something I should not have done.
This is why being angry at God is never right. It is wrong – always wrong – to disapprove of God for what he does and permits. “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” (Genesis 18:25). It is arrogant for finite, sinful creatures to disapprove of God for what he does and permits. We may weep over the pain. We may be angry at sin and Satan. But God does only what is right.  “Yes, O Lord God, the Almighty, true and righteous are Your judgments” (Revelation 16:7). (Is it Ever Right to Be Angry at God?)
I agree with John's reasoning and have often offered essentially the same response myself. God cannot sin. He can do no wrong. To the Scriptures cited by John to this effect we could add many others. For example:
NKJ Isaiah 6:1-5 “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up, and the train of His robe filled the temple. 2 Above it stood seraphim; each one had six wings: with two he covered his face, with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. 3 And one cried to another and said: 'Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory!' 4 And the posts of the door were shaken by the voice of him who cried out, and the house was filled with smoke. 5 So I said: 'Woe is me, for I am undone! Because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts.'”
The holiness of God always exposes our sin, just as it did the sin of Isaiah. In fact, that God is holy means that he does not sin and is separated from sin.

Wayne Grudem has offered a good definition of the holiness of God in his Systematic Theology, where he writes:
God's holiness means that he is separated from sin and devoted to seeking his own honor. This definition contains both a relational quality (separation from) and a moral quality (the separation is from sin or evil, and the devotion is to the good of God’s own honor or glory). (p. 201)
The holiness of God also provides the basis for His commands for us to be Holy. For example:
NKJ 1 Peter 1:13-16 “Therefore gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and rest your hope fully upon the grace that is to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ; 14 as obedient children, not conforming yourselves to the former lusts, as in your ignorance; 15 but as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, 16 because it is written, 'Be holy, for I am holy.'”
It is because God is holy – and thus desires that we be holy – that He disciplines us as His children:
NKJ Hebrews 12:10-14 “For they indeed for a few days chastened us as seemed best to them, but He for our profit, that we may be partakers of His holiness. 11 Now no chastening seems to be joyful for the present, but painful; nevertheless, afterward it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. 12 Therefore strengthen the hands which hang down, and the feeble knees, 13 and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be dislocated, but rather be healed. 14 Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord ….”
In fact, God is so holy that he cannot even be tempted to sin:
NKJ James 1:13 “Let no one say when he is tempted, 'I am tempted by God'; for God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He Himself tempt anyone.”
Again, it is clear from Scripture that God can do no wrong and that He is the very standard of righteousness for us. It is also clear, therefore, that any response to His decisions or actions that assumes that He has done wrong is itself wrong! Indeed, given such evidence from Scripture that God can do no wrong, the thought that a person could ever justly be angry at Him immediately appears ridiculous, doesn't it?

But what about the clear examples in Scripture of believers who were angry at God? Let's examine two such instances and see what we can discover.

Example #1: Job
NKJ Job 19:6-7 “Know then that God has wronged me, and has surrounded me with His net. 7 If I cry out concerning wrong, I am not heard. If I cry aloud, there is no justice.”
After initially refusing either to curse God or to accuse Him of any wrong (1:20; 2:10), Job eventually succumbed to the pressure of his circumstances and the resulting despair, and he accused God of wrong. His anger toward God is easy to detect in his complaints, and the reason for his anger is clear enough as well: He believes God has wronged him by treating him unfairly.
Such anger at God has been the temptation of many a depressed and sorrowful soul. Thankfully, though, Job never did curse God and turn away from Him, no matter how bitter and angry he became. And later in the book we find that Job regretted having spoken such rash and angry words about God. For God Himself confronted Job for what he had said:
NKJ Job 40:1-5 “Moreover the LORD answered Job, and said: 2 'Shall the one who contends with the Almighty correct Him? He who rebukes God, let him answer it.' 3 Then Job answered the LORD and said: 4 'Behold, I am vile; what shall I answer You? I lay my hand over my mouth. 5 Once I have spoken, but I will not answer; yes, twice, but I will proceed no further.'”
NKJ  Job 42:1-6 “Then Job answered the LORD and said: 2 'I know that You can do everything, and that no purpose of Yours can be withheld from You. 3 You asked, “Who is this who hides counsel without knowledge?” Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. 4 Listen, please, and let me speak; You said, “I will question you, and you shall answer Me.” 5 I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees You. 6 Therefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes.'”
It seems clear to me that Job recognized that he had been wrong about God and that he was wrong to say the things about God that he had said. He recognized that his attitude had been sinful and offered God his most sincere confession and repentance. I must say, then, that I continue to be dumbfounded at the way so many cite the case of Job as evidence that it is alright to be angry at God. I think Job himself – if he were here – would vehemently disagree. In fact, he might just get angry at the people who say such things!

Example #2: Jonah
NKJ Jonah 4:1-11 “But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he became angry. 2 So he prayed to the LORD, and said, 'Ah, LORD, was not this what I said when I was still in my country? Therefore I fled previously to Tarshish; for I know that You are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, One who relents from doing harm. 3 Therefore now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live!' 4 Then the LORD said, 'Is it right for you to be angry?' 5 So Jonah went out of the city and sat on the east side of the city. There he made himself a shelter and sat under it in the shade, till he might see what would become of the city. 6 And the LORD God prepared a plant  and made it come up over Jonah, that it might be shade for his head to deliver him from his misery. So Jonah was very grateful for the plant. 7 But as morning dawned the next day God prepared a worm, and it so damaged the plant that it withered. 8 And it happened, when the sun arose, that God prepared a vehement east wind; and the sun beat on Jonah's head, so that he grew faint. Then he wished death for himself, and said, 'It is better for me to die than to live.' 9 Then God said to Jonah, 'Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?' And he said, 'It is right for me to be angry, even to death!' 10 But the LORD said, 'You have had pity on the plant for which you have not labored, nor made it grow, which came up in a night and perished in a night. 11 And should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which are more than one hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot discern between their right hand and their left – and much livestock?'”
Yes, Jonah was angry at God. But he was also wrong to be angry at God! And God made this clear to him, didn't He?


So, in each of these two classic exampels of men who were angry at God, it is clear that they were wrong to be angry at Him. But what if we are angry at God – however wrong it may be – what should we do then? I think John Piper again offers good advice here:
But many who say it is right to be angry with God really mean it is right to express anger at God. When they hear me say it is wrong to be angry with God, they think I mean "stuff your feelings and be a hypocrite." That's not what I mean. I mean it is always wrong to disapprove of God in any of his judgments.
But if we do experience the sinful emotion of anger at God, what then? Shall we add the sin of hypocrisy to the sin of anger? No. If we feel it, we should confess it to God. He knows it anyway. He sees our hearts. If anger at God is in our heart, we may as well tell him so, and then tell him we are sorry, and ask him to help us put it away by faith in his goodness and wisdom. (Is it Ever Right to Be Angry at God?)
Again, I have frequently offered essentially the same advice to struggling believers. It is never right to pretend with God. In fact, to pretend with Him assumes negative things about Him that are just as bad as assuming He can do wrong, for it assumes that God does not really know what we are thinking and cannot figure out why we are acting the way we are acting! The best thing to do, then, is to accept God for who He says He is and to be honest with Him. Admit your anger and repent as Job did, and be assured that He will forgive you.