What Kind Of Religion Do You Have?

Neal Pollard

While people today want to emphasize “spirituality” over “religion,” that is not the biblical way.  By “spiritual,” people want to talk about a self-defined personal relationship with God, the way they feel, or their pursuit of some mystical or mysterious expression of the soul.  The Bible is much less abstract and more concrete in passages like James 1:26-27, and the result should be quite convicting.

James indicates that one’s religion could be worthless (1:26).  This one may even think himself to be religious, but instead he is a forgetful hearer.  In context, he has forgotten what God’s word has said about bridling the tongue.  But, the principle applies much more broadly.  One can think himself religious, but in ignoring what the Bible says on a specific matter—ethics, morality, the plan of salvation, worship, etc.—this one deceives his own heart and possesses a worthless religion.  Notice that there is a concrete, objective way to measure this.

James indicates that one’s religion can also be pure and undefiled (1:27).  In keeping with context, this is a person who is a doer and not only a hearer of the word.  This person consciously reads and strives to apply what God has said in Scripture.  James gives a couple of examples of this in the verse, from compassionate care for the unfortunate to not allowing the world to taint us by its influence.  Regardless of the challenge or obligation, because we strive to follow the Word, we will have a religion that is unsoiled and unsullied. James says so.

I may think I have a certain kind of religious, spiritual life, but the Bible is a mirror that shows me exactly where I am.  I can claim or assert that I have a certain relationship with God or spiritual feeling, but does the declaration match the deeds.  That determines what kind of religion I have.

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Giving Up Ground To the Enemy

Neal Pollard

On at least three fronts, there are major battles occurring—ISIS and the existing governments in a handful of Middle Eastern countries, Israel and the Palestinians, and Ukraine and Russian-led rebels. In each of these conflicts, both sides are trying to gain ground or at least hold onto what they already have. They are trying not only to win the actual battles they are fighting, but they also seek to win the battle of public opinion.  With the money and lives invested, neither side in any of the conflicts can bear the thought of losing.

While “our struggle is not against flesh and blood” (Eph. 6:12) and “we do not war according to the flesh” (2 Cor. 10:3), we face a deadly adversary (1 Pet. 5:8).  He is the enemy, though he has a great many who have “been held captive by him to do his will” (2 Ti. 2:26). They are fighting his battles for him of their own free will (Js. 1:13-15), and they are more than willing to engage those of us who would steadfastly resist him (1 Pet. 5:9).

In this media age, the devil’s soldiers have used means previous generations did not have at their disposal to spread his ideas across the nation and all over the globe.  But because there have been people willing to battle him, he has not gained ground all at once. The moral erosion has happened slowly over time, attitudes about foul language, alcohol, modesty, sex outside of marriage and living together, adultery, homosexuality, and much more.  Doctrinal erosion also occurs subtly and gradually, but denominationalism has given way to modernism, post-modernism, and emergent theologies.  The Lord’s church is impacted by assaults on its distinctiveness, and elderships, pulpits, classrooms, and memberships can gradually lose their militancy, courage, and resolve to stand up for God’s revealed will.  It is easy to be cowered by charges of extremism, hatred, or sanctimoniousness, especially when there are examples of such to be found.

Yet, we cannot forget that we are in a battle.  God needs us to stand in the gap and continue fighting for His truth, even in the face of opposition and resistance.  Paul reminds us that “the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh” (2 Cor. 10:4). The weapons in our left and right hands is righteousness (2 Cor. 6:7).  We press on in spiritual armor (Rom. 13:12; Eph. 6:11ff).  When each of us as soldiers in the Lord’s Army arrive at the time when we must lay down our armor, may it be said that we gained ground and served the Lord’s cause successfully. May it never be that we gave up ground to the enemy!

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“I THINK I UNDERSTAND”

Neal Pollard

As part of the personal evangelism class I just taught in Cambodia, I had the students engage in role-playing for a couple of days.  It was wonderful and memorable.  Some of the students are brand new Christians and have no experience doing personal work.  All of them got into it wholeheartedly. Perhaps the most poignant moment came about purely accidentally.  We had a table set up, with a teacher, silent partner, and student.  The “student” was to come up with the issue or dilemma for the “teacher” to solve. In one particular scenario, the “student” hit the teacher with his true background.  He said, “When I was born, I did not even get to see my parents. They died and I am an orphan. If there is a God, why did this happen?”  His teacher gently and unassumingly said, “I think I understand. I lost my parents when I was young, too, and I am an orphan.” There followed a beautiful lesson on God’s love and pretty good insights on why there is suffering in this world. But the fact his teacher not only comprehended, but experienced his situation made a huge impact on everyone in the room.

We will suffer in a great many ways throughout our short sojourn on this earth.  At times, we may think that not another soul on earth understands.  Perhaps, there will come a time when that is actually true.  However, we will never encounter a single trial but that someone will always understand.  He may not be on earth, but He is ever-present. He is actually omnipresent.  The Hebrews writer says of Him, “For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:15-16).  As we bring our biggest, most debilitating issues into His presence, He gently says, “I think I understand.” Praise God!

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Blown By Storms

Neal Pollard

Yesterday, several of us traveled from Siem Reap out to Tonle Sap Lake to visit two of the graduates from the first class at the International Bible Institute of Siem Reap, one of our Bear Valley extensions.  They live on a raft and operate a water filtration system capable of servicing dozens of locals each day.  The lake is over an hour from Siem Reap, and they have yet to establish a congregation so our visit was to encourage them.  After visiting, we were having a devotional—singing songs and having a short lesson.  During the lesson, the winds started to blow and the raft started to pull against the ropes tied to the dock.  Suddenly, hard and heavy tropical rains had replaced sunny skies and we were in a storm.  The dock was damaged by the raft tugging against it, and quickly we were tethered by only one rope.  Currents were moving downstream in this, the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia, and the surge flow produced fast-moving water intensified by the rains.  In short, the visit could have ended much more dramatically and dangerously.

There were things that struck me about that storm—it was sudden, powerful, and intense.  It is hard to think of disciples in a boat during a storm without thinking of the events recorded in Matthew 8:23-27.  A storm arose, the boat was covered with waves, the seasoned fishermen and boatmen were frightened, and Jesus was asleep onboard.  They awake Him, He rebuked the wind and the water, and then He rebuked them.  Their faith was not as firm as the fracas.  After yesterday, I am even less critical of their reaction.  It’s easy to feel small and helpless when such a storm arises.

The Bible compares our trials and difficulties to storms.  Job and David, among others, call them “tempests” (Job 9:17; Psa. 55:8). Jesus calls them floods and torrents (Luke 6:47-49). Solomon likens them to storms (Pro. 1:27).  We appreciate the imagery!

These storms can blow us off course and can even make us drift. We can find ourselves barely hanging on and wondering how much more we can take.  Let us remember that Jesus is still with us (Mat. 28:20), so no matter how fierce the storm we will ultimately survive.  “Ultimately” may not mean being spared from physical death, but it does mean that we will preserve our spiritual lives.  May our faith be strong enough to remember that as long as our Lord is near, we are more than conquerors (cf. Rom. 8:31).

We were “fodder” for makeshift foreigners’ photography. Here’s how I’m getting even. :)

 

Saran is one of the men in the water trying to set poles to help tie down the raft.

Our ultimate “rescue.”

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“I Don’t Consider Myself Unfaithful”

Neal Pollard

An intelligent, independent young American man in his mid-20s showed up at the Siem Reap church building for mid-week services.  He not only grew up in the church, but he even attended a “Christian” high school and one of our brotherhood universities.  He is doing field research for an advanced degree in cultural anthropology, which brought him to Cambodia.  He is a decent, inquisitive person seemingly intent on bringing positive change to this world, but upon leaving his home state after graduating college he ceased association with the church.  When asked about his religious life, he said, “I don’t consider myself unfaithful, but I’m not attending the church right now.  I guess you could say I’m taking a break.”

Rather than being a “what’s wrong with young people is…” or “what’s wrong with the church is…” article, I want to think in terms of what faithfulness or unfaithfulness is.  Is it something we can gauge, and, if so, how?  Can we claim faithfulness but fail to demonstrate it?

The Bible speaks of the faithfulness of God, for example.  How do we know He is faithful?  Moses suggests we conclude such based on His work, ways, and attributes (Deut. 32:4). The psalmist points to His word and work (Psa. 33:4).  Faithfulness involved His working wonders and deliberately planning (Isa. 25:1).

In the same way, the Bible identifies faithfulness as something tangible and measurable, as visible as justice and mercy (Mat. 23:23), as demonstrable as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal. 5:22-23).  The very word refers to loyalty and trustworthiness (Utley, np).  In Galatians 5:22, it “describes the believer’s new relationship with people, especially believers” (ibid.).  In this list, it is more than trust or belief.  The other eight words indicate ethical qualities, so this should be interpreted as such, too.  In other words, being faithful is seen by how we live and what we do.  Can we be faithful to Christ and His church when we do not attach ourselves to a local congregation, provoking others to love and good works as a manner of habit (Heb. 10:24-25).  If we are not seeking to build up one another (1 Th. 5:11) or cause the growth of the body (Eph. 4:16), how is that not unfaithful?  Twice in the gospels, Jesus tells parables concerning faithfully accomplish our Christian responsibilities (Mat. 25:14-30; Luke 19:11-27). There could be no judgment and accountability without there being concrete ways to measure and determine faithfulness.

We do not get to define it for ourselves.  The Lord has already revealed what He considers faithfulness and unfaithfulness.  Ceasing to work for and worship Him, failing to encourage the spiritual family, and abstaining from such service as soul-winning and moral distinctiveness are tangible indicators that we have ceased from faithfulness.  Let us so live that in the end we can hear our Lord exclaim, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Mat. 25:21,23).

Carl preaching at the mid-week service at Siem Reap church of Christ.

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SEXUAL DEVIANCE

Neal Pollard

On this trip to Cambodia, there have been insights into some things I did not know and reminders of things I did know.  Polygamy is routinely practiced in the villages, trafficking of minors to wicked and perverse men is a problem, and promiscuity is getting more common.  Some of these issues are matters of exploitation, while others are matters of choice in the culture.  However, these kinds of departures are to be found all over the world.  In our own country, a great many live together and engage in a sexual relationship without the thought of marriage.  Divorce without biblical reason and remarriage is commonplace.  Homosexuality in the last few years has been a cause celebre, something you are confronted with just about everywhere you turn.

To say something is sexually deviant does not mean that it is not popular in a culture.  If deviance means “different from what is considered to be normal or morally correct” (Webster), a lot of things condemned in scripture are considered normal by people today. The world may not see these departures are deviant, but what the world thinks cannot overthrow the will of God.  God made us and knows how we best function in every area of life.  He also created sex as a blessing for people to enjoy within the boundaries He has set.  We deviate from that standard to our own individual hurt and to our own society’s peril and demise (cf. Prov. 14:34).  Jesus warned that what came out of man’s heart defiles him, defilement that includes evil thoughts, fornication, adultery, coveting, wickedness, and sensuality, among other things (Mark 7:20-23).

No country or even time has a monopoly on sexual deviance. The Bible warns about it in both testaments, with even graphic illustrations of the problem and how God feels about it, but He does so because He knows what’s best for us.  The couple (or individuals in the marriage) who turn to pornography to “spice up” their marriage will suffer for it. Those who tinker with God’s marriage plan in whatever way will see the bitter fruit of it.  What God wants is for us to see what He has laid down for us to follow, strive to follow it, and enjoy the great reward that comes in doing things His way!  We must not deviate into deviance, but will do so to our own hurt! Let’s keep confidence that His way is the only way and it is the best way.

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“NO, HE’S ABOUT LIKE YOU!”

Neal Pollard

A new preacher was moving to work with a church in a community where there were several more congregations. Two of the preachers already working in that area met for lunch and the conversation soon moved to the new preacher. One of the men asked, “Have you ever heard of this guy before?” The other said, “Yes, I know him very well.” The first, picking at the second, said, “Oh? Well, does he preach as well as you?” The second dryly said, “No, he preaches about like you!”

That second preacher had healthy self-image, didn’t he? He was obviously joking, but you probably have met his counterpart-someone who took such self-evaluation quite seriously. We call them the “one-uppers,” “the toppers,” and the one most likely to say, “Oh yeah? You think that’s something.” You hear them at work, at your kid’s ballgame, out with a group of friends, at family gatherings, and even with spiritual family members. Different things may make them tick-arrogance, low self-esteem, insecurity or feelings of inadequacy, a felt need for being the center of attention, and any number of other things. Typically, such behavior is thought boorish and overbearing and only rarely endearing.

The Bible tells the church, with its many and varied “parts,” that no one should “think more highly of himself than he ought to think” (Rom. 12:3). You are precious and valuable in the sight of the Lord, no doubt! However, you are not more special or valuable than any of His other children. Your soul is not even more valuable than the lost, as yet unredeemed soul of that wino in the gutter, that prostitute walking the street, that murderer on death row, or that blind mute living out a short life in the obscurity of an orphanage in Albania. My Grandpa Mitchell was known to often say, “Remember that nobody is better than you are and you are no better than anyone else!” What an even-handed, level-headed way to look at life. You are better at some things than others, you do better in certain areas of life than others, and there may be one of more things at which you are incredibly talented, competent, or proficient! Be grateful to God and give Him the glory for it or them. But never let it turn to sinful pride or an over-inflated ego. That is a turn off to men and God!

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T.H.I.N.K. (Teens Happily Ingesting New Knowledge)

Neal Pollard

How fitting that they were there studying James 1:22, as Michael Hite taught.  Well over 20 of them gathered in one living room, hunkered down for nearly 90 minutes as just eight verses were covered in-depth, they seemed like budding archaeologists finding some new treasure.  That they have been doing this week after week for nearly nine months is incredible! Rather than losing interest, they seem to be building it.  Not only that, they are inviting non-Christian friends, concocting ways to serve the Lord and others, and growing more knowledgeable in the meat of the word.  There is no sense of obligation evidenced, but a genuine desire to be together investigating the truth of the Bible.  Yes, they have an excellent teacher, but they also have a true hunger.  They are like those Jesus’ praises in Matthew 5:6, hungering and thirsting for righteousness.  They are like those Luke reports about in Acts 17:11, eagerly receiving the word.  They are like those James challenges the Christians to be, quick to hear the word (1:19) and looking into the perfect law of liberty and continuing in it (1:25).

Frankly, they challenge you and me.  They are saying, by example, “we are willing to commit an extra couple of hours every week in addition to our regular assemblies to go deeper in studying God’s Word!  We do not have to, but we want to do it.  Not only that, we are growing (2 Pe. 3:18) and using this study to improve our spiritual walk (Col. 1:9-12)!  It is motivating us to do good works (cf. 1 Ti. 6:18). We are applying it and it is changing our lives!”  Of course, that is what scripture is meant to do for each of us.

We must develop a taste for the milk and meat of the Master’s message!  The more we thoughtfully take in, the more we will want.  Bear Valley teens, thank you for challenging us to step it up!  We will try to keep up with you!

 

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HURT PEOPLE HURT PEOPLE

Neal Pollard

Several have made the observation that hurt people are inclined to hurt people.  I have been told that by others to explain mean, hurtful, rude, and inappropriate remarks.  Yet, since everyone experiences significant hurt (so the Holy Spirit said through Job in Job 14:1), why doesn’t everyone lash out and wound others as they suffer from their own and various “injuries”?  Why do others, including those claiming to be Christians, seem inclined to injure others with especially their speech? It is good to get some perspective and not take personally the times someone cuts and slashes us or we witness a hurt person hurting someone else.  While it never excuses bad behavior, it does help to understand it better.  However, what can we say to the hurtful hurt person?

  • Take your hurts to God’s throne.  He is perfect and perfectly impartial (Acts 10:34-35).  He also has all the facts and all the answers.  He can help our life’s situations better than anyone else.  Let Him help you bear the load.
  • Don’t allow your pain to injure your influence or your spirituality.  It is possible for us to earn a reputation as sarcastic, biting, mean-spirited, passive-aggressive, critical, etc.  Yet, we never want to do anything that threatens to douse our Christian lights.
  • Find healthy ways to work through the hurt.  Prayer has already been mentioned.  Loving, spiritual confrontation is another (cf. Gal. 6:1; Mat. 18:15ff). Part of healthy coping is avoiding the unhealthy.
  • Focus intently on the spirit of the “Golden Rule.”  Be sure that you would want said to you what you are tempted to say or if you’d want it said in the way you’re going to say it before you let it fly.  It requires tremendous self-awareness and self-examination to successfully do this, but it can make all the difference.
  • Try to move from hypersensitivity to genuine concern for others.  We cannot keep our feelings on our sleeves and keep a record of wrongs done to us. It’s not loving (1 Co. 13:5).  What is loving is to work to look out for the interest of others (Phi. 2:4).
  • Measure the impact of your words before you say them.  You cannot unsay things, so think it through first!  The late Marshal Keeble once said, “Before we speak, we must chew our words and taste them and see if they are pleasant words.”  If not, swallow them!

Since “death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Pro. 18:21), we must make the choice to say words that heal rather than kill, that restore and do not demolish.  We should never wish to contribute to another’s struggle to walk in the light or get to heaven, and we must consider how our words either encourage or discourage.  If hurt people hurt people, what do saved people do?

 

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Little Things?

 

Neal Pollard

Look what one look at a woman bathing on her rooftop cost a man, his home, and his country.  The pronunciation of one word spelled the difference between life and death for a nation of people.  One word inserted by a serpent changed the course of human history forever.

One visit to a website, one indiscreet email or phone call, one moment of anger and fury, one rash and foolish decision made before a new Christian, or one “white lie” can create unbearable consequences to the heart, destiny, and influence of a person.  Rationalization that it’s only once or only a little can be fatal, both to self and others.

But this “little thing” principle applies to attitude, too.  A brief, gossiping conversation may seem harmless, but discourage or devastate the subject of it.   Small, snide comments about the elders, Bible class teachers, deacons, or others may divide friends for a long time.  A grudge-bearer may help divide a church over a single, relatively minor incident having long since occurred.  “Little,” too often, is in the eye of the beholder.

A dear preacher friend of mine, David Sain, once illustrated this point very well.  He wrote:

I once read a statement that really got my attention.  It declared that a
tiny gnat can wreck an automobile.  Of  course, I wondered, “How?”
The article then explained that a tiny gnat had wrecked a car by flying
into the eye of the driver at a critical time, causing him to lose control.
So often in life, little things can do great harm.  It is easy for us to be
like that gnat.  Our petty criticisms, murmuring, complaints, and fault-
finding can “wreck” the most ambitious person or program.  Friend,
what our world needs is builders-not “wreckers.” (via Eastern Meadows Church
Bulletin, Montgomery, AL).

Let’s be careful with our influence, not minimizing our impact on others by our words, acts, and attitudes.  We want to do the little things that make a church great, through those same mediums.  As David says, let us build rather than wreck!

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