3 Kinds of Idolatry

God created human beings as worshipers. There is something within the human heart that responds to a sight of glory with adoration and praise. This is true of both religious and non-religious people. Worship, though a religious term, is simply being devoted to someone or something. It is showing reverence and honour towards something. It is making a sacrifice in order to protect or procure something. In other words, every person on the planet is a worshiper every moment of every day, because we all are devoted to someone or something that captivates our hearts. For us this becomes a functional god.

In his book Doctrine, Mark Driscoll puts it this way:

Worship is not merely an aspect of our being but the essence of our being as God’s image bearers. As a result, all of life is ceaseless worship. Practically, this means that while worship does include corporate church meetings, singing songs, and liturgical forms, it is not limited by these things, defined solely as these things, or expressed only in these things, because worship never stops. Rather, we are continually giving ourselves away or pouring ourselves out for a person, cause, experience, achievement, or status.

Whatever most dominates our affections is what we worship. And without the power of the Holy Spirit, no person ever worships God. In our sinful nature, we worship and serve created things rather than our Creator (Romans 1:25). We always choose someone or something other than God to be the object of our affections and the desire of our heart. We are all, therefore, idolators.

Idolatry is hard to spot sometimes because it comes in different forms. Some idolatry is obvious, and some idolatry is subtle. But we know from Scripture that idolatry is universal among human beings, and so we would be wise to take a closer look.

I would like to suggest three forms idolatry can take. Perhaps it may help us examine the idols in our lives that rob God of the glory he is due.

1. Pagan idolatry

When people think of idols, usually the first thing that comes to mind is some ancient or uncivilized tribe who are bowing down to an image carved out of stone or wood. This most certainly would fit the category of pagan idolatry. Pagan idolatry is the easiest to spot because it takes on the most obvious forms: some kind of ceremony or ritual that is performed to a deity that is not the God of the Bible.

Pagan idolatry is characterized by practices that are explicitly spiritual in nature but do not involve God the Father, Jesus Christ, or the Holy Spirit. Rather, it may be for some other named or unnamed god. Things like yoga in its truest form, attempts to connect to nature, bowing down to idols, transcendental meditation, and the like, are examples of pagan idolatry. This would also include Hinduism, Buddhism, and forms of nature-driven spirituality. Other kinds of pagan idolatry might include the use of ouija boards, crystal balls, tarot cards, reading the stars, reike, and the like.

2. Secular idolatry

Unlike pagan idolatry, secular idolatry is harder to spot. This is because it is generally free of religious language or typically spiritual practices. But don’t be deceived, it is just as real and just as damaging! Secular idolatry is practiced even by those who don’t consider themselves to be religious in any way. It is the most common form of idolatry in our modern western world.

The gods of our culture include sex, money, power, physical appearance, family, romance, fame, leisure, celebrities, success, food, comfort, image, and the like. People, religious or otherwise, give themselves away to attain these things. They give themselves away in order to to get them and to keep them. They dominate their lives in a way that mirrors religious devotion.

It works something like this. Someone has a false idea of what heaven is, a false idea of what hell is, and they turn to a false god for deliverance. For instance, a teen girl might think the worst thing imaginable is to not be the object of a boys affection. For her, this is hell. On the flip side, the best thing she can imagine is for a cute boy to be totally enthralled with her. This seems to her like heaven. Therefore, in order for her to get out of her functional hell and into her functional heaven, she needs a god to save her: a boy who likes her. Though almost no teen girl would say her boyfriend is a god to her, she often will act like it. He is her first thought in the morning and her last thought before sleep. He is the one who is trusted to take away her loneliness and bring meaning to her daily life. He is the source of her happiness and self-worth. And she is willing to do anything to please him and stay on his good side.

In other words, the boyfriend is her god. She is practicing secular idolatry.

Everyone in North America struggles with secular idols. We all have hearts that turn away from God and to other things to solve our problems and meet our needs that only God can really do.

3. Religious idolatry

The third form of idolatry is religious idolatry. Religious idolatry seems like worship on the outside but is not the real thing at all. Churches are full of religious idolatry because there are always people who go through the motions of religious practices without ever engaging them with their heart.

Imagine a person who goes to church faithfully every week. They sing the songs, listen politely to the sermon, put money into the offering, and perform the various rituals that are expected of them, such as taking communion and being baptized. Because this individual is doing all of the religious things expected of them, they assume that they are in God’s good graces. But in fact they are committing idolatry. Their false god is the religious practices themselves, not what the religious practices point to.

Jesus regularly butted heads with the Pharisees of his day, because they were devoted to their religious traditions without having any real love for God. They trusted in their performance, not God, to save them. They believed that their external holiness meant they were internally holy as well—yet Jesus called them beautiful graves with dead mens bones inside (Matthew 23:27).

There are millions of very religious people who are guilty of religious idolatry. One example is the Holy Doors of Mercy located in St. Peter’s Basillica, Rome. The Catholic church declared a Year of Mercy in 2016 and said that the Holy Doors in Rome would be opened for a limited time, and anyone who passed through the doors would have their sins absolved. This is classic religious idolatry. It is trusting that somehow a doorway can do something only God can do. God alone can forgive sins, and he does so simply by a repentant sinner asking for forgiveness (1 John 1:9), not by passing through a doorway or any other activity, religious or otherwise.


The reality is this: God is real and we were made to worship him. Yet there is only one way to truly worship the One True God: through faith in Jesus Christ. Sin separates us from God, but through Christ we can have the barrier of sin removed and be reconciled to God, freed from the idols that enslave us. Jesus said in John 5:23

Whoever does not honour the Son does not honour the Father, who sent him.

This means to be a worshiper (which we all are) without honouring Jesus is by definition idolatry. Step one of turning from our idols and worshiping God is to honour the Son, Jesus Christ. When we submit ourselves to Christ, and believe on him and Saviour and Lord, we begin a life of worship to God. And a life of worship to God through faith in Christ is the most freeing, life-giving thing a human being can ever experience.

How Can a God of Love Also Be a God of Wrath?

Everybody loves to talk about God’s love. The love of God is a concept we can receive quite easily…after all, what’s not to love about us? (Read sarcastically.) We are fond of the idea of a God who is fond of us, a God who’s love and patience and compassion knows no limits. We all want a God who loves us, and that is exactly what the Bible says God is like. 1 John 4:8 says it so simply, “God is love”. The God of the Bible is a loving God and we are exactly right to say so.

And yet the Bible has a few other things to say about God as well. In addition to speaking of his love, the Bible also speaks about God’s wrath. Some 600 times the Old Testament refers to the wrath of God. The New Testament also speaks regularly of God’s anger, and Jesus himself speaks more about hell and final judgment than anyone else in the Scriptures. There’s no doubt that if you read the Bible in its totality, you are confronted with both a God of love and a God of wrath.

This really trips some people up. A God of love I get, but a God of wrath? What’s the deal with that? Because we bristle at the idea of God’s wrath, more and more people are trying to deny that aspect of God’s character. Not only do faintly religious people deny God’s wrath, but more and more those who are committed Christians are also trying to dismiss the idea of an angry God. It is quite fashionable these days to highlight the love of God while ignoring the wrath of God. Many pastors and Bible teachers are happy to speak of God’s love but avoid speaking of his wrath like a cat avoids water. Yet this is clearly a tactic to skirt the obvious, that Scripture paints us a picture of God that includes wrath and judgment.

It’s a natural question to ask: If the Bible presents God as having both love and wrath, how can those two qualities exist together? How can a God of love also be a God of wrath?

Though this question presents a challenge for many people, I believe the answer is a lot more obvious than we might expect. The reason God can be both loving and wrathful is because those emotions go hand-in-hand, not only for God but also among human beings. In order for God to be a God of love, he by necessity must also be a God of wrath. If you try to remove the wrath of God, you actually are creating a God of less love.

Think of it like this. When you love someone deeply, you care a lot about their well-being. You desire what is best for them. You want things to go well for them. You hope that they can create a wonderful life for themselves and that they are fortunate enough to avoid grief and hardship. That is the normal outworking of love for another person.

Then, I would ask, how would you feel if you saw your loved one making terrible choices with their life, if they were self-destructing before your very eyes? What would your response be if they were squandering so much potential and making life so much harder for themselves than it needed to be? The answer is that you would be upset about it. You would be sad, you would be disappointed, and you might even be a little angry.

Author Becky Pippert hits on this point in her book Hope Has Its Reasons. She says:

“Think how we feel when we see someone we love ravaged by unwise actions or relationships. Do we respond with benign tolerance as we might toward strangers? Far from it. … Anger isn’t the opposite of love. Hate is, and the final form of hate is indifference… Human love here offers a true analogy: the more a father loves his son, the more he hates in him the drunkard, the liar, the traitor… [Similarly], if I, a flawed narcissistic sinful woman, can feel this much pain and anger over someone’s condition, how much more a morally perfect God who made them? God’s wrath is not a cranky explosion, but his settled opposition to the cancer of sin which is eating out the insides of the human race he loves with his whole being.”

In other words, God is a God of wrath precisely because he is a God of love. He loves his creation and when he sees it being destroyed, it bothers him. He’s not happy about it. He desires better for us, because he loves us.

It’s not just that we (and God) get upset when people ruin their own lives. We also get mad when we see other people ruin the lives of those we love. When someone we care for is wronged, we rightly feel outrage. That outrage is an expression of love. We feel a deep-seated sense of anger that someone we love experienced unnecessary or unjust pain. And, not surprisingly, God feels the exact same way.

When God looks down on earth and sees injustice, when he sees adultery, when he sees abuse, enslavement, violence, neglect, rip-offs, lying, cheating, manipulation, coercion, slander, bullying, and divorce, what do you think he feels? Well, he feels exactly the same way you and I do. He hates it. He is angry. He doesn’t want it to be that way. What kind of a sick God sees the horrors that are committed by humanity and isn’t bothered by it? If God were to look upon the darkness of our world and meet it with a shrug of indifference, he would not be a God of love. His love demands that he respond with anger.

This is why it makes perfect sense that God is both a God of love and wrath. In fact, he cannot be one without the other. His love for his own creation makes his wrath a necessary part of his character. A God without wrath is not a God of love, at least not in a world where sin runs rampant. The mess and implosion that humanity finds itself in, God’s beloved creation, wells up within him a sense of frustration and anger over the whole thing. It is precisely his love that brings about such a response.

Shhh, the Pastor’s Coming!

Most of the time I love being a pastor, but there are some things about the role that can be very frustrating. One of them (speaking for myself anyways) is when people act differently around me than they do in normal life, simply because I’m a “pastor”. Being in youth ministry, I see this all the time. Students have their regular, day-to-day life that they live out with their friends and family. For the most part, they let their guard down and just are who they are without giving it a second thought. Then, as soon as they get around me, a switch happens. Suddenly their language is different, their interests are different, their perception of life is different, and it is all faker than a face-lift on an aging supermodel.

I hate fake. I don’t care much for fake anything—knock-off brand cereal, flopping in the NBA, or auto-tuned singers. But I get especially annoyed when people are being fake. I think that as a pastor, I tend to get the fake version of people more often than the average Joe. I guess the perception is that I’m supposed to be some kind of holy man and so people should act holy around me. Next thing you know, people who normally cuss like sailors are talking like Mother Theresa. People who normally don’t give God three seconds of thought in the day are great theologians. And people who are sleeping around and partying on the weekend are really into the Newsboys and want to make sure I know about it.

It’s really not much fun being around fake people. It can be quite lonely. Rather than actually having a meaningful conversation with someone, I have a pretend conversation with them. They play the part, I nod along, and then it ends. They never showed their true colours, I never got any real chance to show genuine love for who they really are, and the whole thing is a waste of time. Most of the time I can tell when someone is being fake, even if I never let on that I know. I just play the game and hope one day the jig will be up and we can actually have a relationship that is real.

That’s why I appreciate whenever someone is brutally honest with me. I don’t even care if they disagree with me on just about everything I believe in—at the very least we can have a real, meaningful interaction. No faking, no acting, just talk and see where it goes. I love that kind of thing. When I walk through the halls of a high school or the mall, I see students I know in their natural environment. I hear how they talk and what they talk about. I see who they are around their peers. And even though it may include a whole lot of stuff that I’m not a fan of, I would rather they be that way with me and show their true self than fake it and feel like somehow they’ve won themselves a victory.

There are some students that I know who let their guard down around me even though you might not expect them to. They aren’t Christians. They don’t pretend to be. They say things I would never say, listen to stuff I would never listen to, and do things I would never condone. And yet I don’t jump all over them for it, and they don’t feel like they need to hide it from me. They know where I stand, I know where they stand, and that is that. We just are who we are and we have earned each other’s respect. We might talk about those hard things from time to time, and we might agree to disagree. So be it. I actually love when people are like that with me. It’s the way it should be.

What good can come from being a phoney Christian? There is little to gain and much to lose. A faker forfeits meaningful relationships. They must pretend to be someone they are not. They must lie to cover up whatever they are trying to hide. They carry the stress of putting on the mask at a moments notice, depending on who is in the near vicinity. And worst of all, they feel a measure of peace at hiding the parts of themselves that they deem unholy—and yet this peace is never full because it is a false peace, and they know it. So you managed to fool the pastor (or so you think)? Congratulations! You have succeeded in tricking someone you are not ultimately accountable to at the expense of increasing your guilt before the One you are ultimately accountable to. You have deceived the courtroom, but not the Judge. What gain will come of that?

An old Puritan named Thomas Brooks says this about people who fake their Christianity around people but don’t truly live it from their heart:

“Know that it is not the knowing, nor the talking, nor the reading man —but the doing man, that at last will be found the happiest man. ‘If you know these things, blessed and happy are you if you DO them.’ ‘Not everyone that says, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven—but he who DOES the will of my Father that is in heaven’ (John 13: 17, Matt. 7: 21). Judas called Christ Lord, Lord; and yet betrayed him, and has gone to his place. Ah! how many Judases have we in these days, that kiss Christ, and yet betray Christ; that in their words profess him—but in their works deny him; that bow their knee to him, and yet in their hearts despise him; that call him Jesus, and yet will not obey him as their Lord.”

The one who plays Christianity before men but denies it with their life is no true Christian. That person knows this is true, and God knows this is true. If you succeed in fooling others, all you have done is held off what appears to be the negative consequences of rejecting Jesus in a public way…aka, showing your true colours. Sure, you won’t get judgmental glances from other believers or sighs of disappointment from hopeful parents. But you also will be forsaking the love and friendship and blessing of God, and severing yourself from the Source of true joy and life. In other words, you get sin instead of Jesus, a surefire recipe for long-term misery if ever there was one. Fake people aren’t happy people.

Why bother wearing the mask? Why bother trying to please people who’s approval you probably don’t even care much for? Why be someone you’re not? God sees. God knows. You haven’t fooled him one bit. And truth be told, his opinion is the only one that counts. So just be real and authentic and honest about who you are. You don’t have to be intentionally provocative or needlessly rude about it. But for goodness’ sake, don’t fake it. If you do, everyone loses.

When Christians Practice Witchcraft

Christians condemn witchcraft, right? In word, yes, but in practice, not always. I believe there are many Christians who engage in what can be called Christian witchcraft. Let me explain.

Witchcraft is an attempt to control, manipulate, or engage with the spirit world through various practices such as spells, incantations, and rituals. Typically, in the Christian world, witchcraft is viewed as delving into the demonic realm and therefore something to be avoided. Scripture levies several warnings against witchcraft:

  • Leviticus 20:27 prescribes the death penalty for those who are mediums or necromancers.
  • 1 Chronicles 10:13 says that God put King Saul to death for consulting a witch for guidance.
  • Galatians 5:20 lists sorcery among other damnable sins.

There is also no doubt that the Bible teaches the existence of spirit beings, both angels and demons. God forbids attempts to connect to the spirit world through any other means than by himself, and more specifically, through Jesus Christ (John 14:6). Therefore it should come as no surprise that Christians virtually unanimously denounce witchcraft and generally steer clear of it.

Except that I’m not so sure that really is the case. As I see it, many Christians have their own version of witchcraft that they practice. It doesn’t involve ouija boards, candles, horoscopes, crystal balls, tarot cards, and the like. But just because it doesn’t look the same doesn’t mean it’s not real.

In an interesting article, Kelsey Munger tells her story about growing up in a Christian family that was obsessed with the spirit realm. Her parents, both very devout Christians, had many different routines they practiced in order to combat what they perceived to be demonic attack. This included rubbing canola oil in the shape of a cross on their home’s doorpost, pouring canola oil in a barrier around the family property, praying over jewelry before wearing it, avoiding imported products for fear they were made by pagans and could carry demons, praying specific phrases repeatedly, and even scouring the backyard for objects that might have been placed there by a witch to curse the family.

You know what those practices are? They are not Christianity. They are witchcraft. They are attempts to control the spirit world through object-oriented rituals.

Some Christians might not go to quite that extreme but still demonstrate a similar pattern of thinking. They tend to blame everything on demons: headaches, a fender bender, lost car keys, a criticism at work, or a financial crunch. They might pray the demons out of a new car or new house. They tend to automatically assume the hippy next door is demon possessed. And they believe that rock music is from the devil.

Here’s why this is so problematic—there’s no Scriptural support for any of it. These are all beliefs and practices that find no basis in God’s Word. Instead, it is the result of taking the witchcraft mentality and applying it to Christian belief. It bears a closer resemblance to superstition than to biblical Christianity.

Back in 2014, a video made the rounds online of a Christian woman explaining why Monster energy drinks are of the devil. She points out that the Monster logo has some symbolism that can be interpreted as being references to the occult and the anti-Christ. At the end she concludes “this is how clever Satan is, and how he gets into the Christian’s home and the Christian’s life, and it breaks God’s heart. Jesus said, ‘My people perish for a lack of knowledge.'”

Let’s be clear: this is utter foolishness. This is Christian witchcraft. Satan does not enter people’s lives through energy drinks. He does so through sin and through unbelief. And though Jesus did say that people perish for a lack of knowledge, he didn’t have demonic symbolism on aluminum cans in mind.

This kind of obsession with the demonic is unhealthy and counter-productive. It does not lead to a life of godliness and fear of the Lord. It leads to a life of paranoia and fear of the devil.

Don’t get me wrong. Satan is real. Demons are real. The spirit world is real. Scripture says so and therefore we Christians ought to believe it. However, the Bible does not dwell on the spirit world the way we sometimes do. It does not emphasize it to the point where we should be on the lookout for demons everywhere we go. In fact, the pattern of the Bible is that overt demonic activity is at its most prevalent during the gospels and Acts, when Christ was on earth and the early church was just getting rolling. Contrast that with the entire Old Testament and the rest of the New Testament, where mention of demonism is very limited.

Although there is no doubt in my mind that Satan and demons are active in the world, and that they can and do manifest themselves in physical ways, that seems to not be the norm. In fact, it is the norm mostly among people who are already looking for it. Missionaries working in very pagan and spiritual cultures might encounter this more often. Those Christians who are obsessed with demonism are more likely to experience strange shadows on the wall. But this does not seem to be what Scripture paints as normal Christian experience. Satan and demons primarily work through deception, doubt, accusation, and the like. (Read an article I wrote about Satan’s tactics here.)

Some Christians will push back. You’re acting like Satan doesn’t exist! If you don’t guard yourself you will unintentionally invite demons into your life! To which I would ask, where does Scripture teach that? Where does it give such warnings? Yes, the devil is a prowling lion looking for someone to devour (1 Peter 5:8), but what is his access point to my life? Is it through the fortune cookies at the bottom of my Chinese takeout? Is it through the skull and bones on my child’s toy pirate ship? Or is it through my lack of Bible reading, my unconfessed sin, and my proud heart?

Far too many Christians focus on the former things while neglecting the latter ones. When believers begin to focus on material things as if they carry spiritual power, we are acting like pagans more than Christ followers. We have abdicated Scripture and become superstitious. And ultimately we will divert ourselves from the God to be glorified and the mission to be accomplished.

My point is this: when Christians find themselves constantly thinking about the devil and what they can do to ward him off, they have fallen into the trap of Christian witchcraft. They have taken their focus off of Christ, which is where it rightly belongs (Hebrews 12:2). They have begun to believe that power against demonic forces resides in rituals or objects and not in Christ alone. Recall that when demons encountered Jesus they trembled in fear and needed to ask for permission even to speak (Matthew 8:29, Luke 4:41). Christ rules over the spirit world, and since Christians are united to him by faith, he is the only weapon we need to face off against any forces of darkness that may oppose us.

What Bella Thinks Makes a Good Dad

This past week I was working on a sermon for Father’s Day when my daughter Bella walked into the room and asked me what I was doing. I told her that I was writing a sermon about being a great dad. Then I asked her if she could help me by telling me what she thinks a good dad would do. Little did I know she would take me so seriously! She sat down with me and compiled a list of 22 things that a good dad does. I share it here for your enjoyment!

  1. he’s helping
  2. he’s caring
  3. he preaches
  4. he works
  5. he does the dishes
  6. he drives
  7. he reads the Bible
  8. he uses the phone
  9. he shops
  10. he cooks supper
  11. he massages mom
  12. he plays
  13. he goes on daddy dates
  14. he prays
  15. he pays for things
  16. he plays pokemon games
  17. he goes to the park
  18. he waters the garden
  19. he goes to church
  20. he meets new friends
  21. he gives hugs and kisses
  22. he gives medicine

Not a bad list for a 6 year old! Now that I have an official job description I’d better get myself to work. Happy Father’s Day to all the dads out there!

13 Ways To Prevent Suicide

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), approximately 1 million people commit suicide every year across the world. In Canada, where I live, that figure is about 4,000 annually. These numbers are tragic, because they are not really numbers at all. They represent the precious lives of human beings, people with names and faces and stories—not to mention the countless friends and family who are affected by their deaths.

My desire is for people to live. Not just to be alive, but to truly live. For that to happen though, some people simply need the end of a rope to cling to when all hope seems lost. To that end I offer these 13 suggestions for preventing suicide.

Remember that there is always hope. The darkness may seem insurmountable, but it is only there for a season. Every suicidal thought has an expiration date. Don’t give up! Better days really do lie ahead.

If you are someone who is feeling suicidal…

  1. Call an emergency hotline if you are in immediate danger. Try the suicide prevention hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). For a list of other hotlines worldwide, click here.
  2. Tell someone if you are having thoughts of suicide. It can be a friend, parent, sibling, mentor, doctor, teacher, coach, counsellor, pastor…anyone who will listen and take you seriously.
  3. Seek out medical advice if you are dealing with severe depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues. Your physician can help you get what you need to cope.
  4. Avoid isolation. Negative thoughts have their greatest power when you are alone. Try to be around people in general, but especially those who love you and are supportive of you.
  5. Deal with any trauma that might be a major cause of your negative thinking. Talk to a counsellor who can help you begin to sort things out and get your life back on track. The death of a loved one, experiencing abuse, a family divorce…find someone to help you work through whatever you may be dealing with.
  6. Pray and/or keep a journal. If you believe in God, use prayer as an outlet for your thoughts and emotions. If not, try using a journal to dump out everything negative in your mind. Like a soda that’s been shaken, emotions that are bottled up become explosive.
  7. Get physically healthy. Physical health and mental health are not the same, but they can be strongly related. Exercise, get some sleep, and eat well.
  8. Keep a “board of gratitude”. Write on sticky notes everything you are thankful for and put it up on the wall. It could be small things like a funny joke you heard, a smile from a passing stranger, or a warm bed to sleep in. Try to put up at least one new thing every day.
  9. Be careful what you watch, read, and listen to. Music and movies can be powerful things. They can sway our thoughts and emotions for better or worse, so choose to consume only that which will build you up and inspire you. Try reading biographies of great people from history past or present.
  10. Go outside. Nature has a way of reviving the soul. Try to spend some time outside every day. Go for a walk, swim, gaze at the stars, or even just take one big breath of fresh air.

If you know someone who is feeling suicidal…

  1. Know the signs. You can click here to learn more or refer to the chart below. 
  2. Be a supportive friend to those who are hurting. A comforting presence is sometimes the difference between hope and no hope. Listen and be available. Stick up for the victim when you see someone being bullied.
  3. Challenge negative assumptions. Someone who is suicidal believes things that simply aren’t true: I’m alone, I’m worthless, I’m ugly, I’m not worth anyone’s time, people would be better off without me, there’s no hope for me. Part of being a helpful friend is to identify those negative assumptions and challenge them with the truth. Show your friend why what they believe is wrong, but do it gently and not argumentatively.

Suicide isn’t the only option. Together we can find a better way.

This article is part of a series of posts on the Netflix hit show 13 Reasons Why. You can read the other entries by clicking below.

Reflection #1 – Why so popular?

Reflection #2 – A world without God

Reflection #3 – Maybe there aren’t any good kids

Reflection #4 – Your truth, my truth

Reflection #5 – Not escape, but revenge

13 Reasons Why: Reflection #5 – Not escape, but revenge

After watching 13 Reasons Why, there is much to be said about this wildly popular and controversial show. I will attempt to share some reflections in a series of posts over the next couple of weeks. I will link to other articles as they are published. Be warned, spoilers and tragedy ahead. 

Reflection #1 – Why so popular?

Reflection #2 – A world without God

Reflection #3 – Maybe there aren’t any good kids

Reflection #4 – Your truth, my truth

Reflection #5 – Not escape, but revenge

13 Ways to Prevent Suicide

Hannah Baker thought she just couldn’t take it anymore. She had suffered enough disgrace from her fellow high school students and was ignored enough by the adults in her life that she decided to end her own life.

Hannah’s suicide is troubling enough. Any time suicide is portrayed in entertainment media it is a dicey thing. There are always concerns that those who are struggling with suicidal thoughts in real life might accidentally be encouraged to take their own life because of the example of another, even if that person isn’t real. 13 Reasons Why has surfaced such concerns. Hannah is a very likeable character, and some of her experiences are not all that uncommon from that of real life teens. It is conceivable that some 15 year old girl out there somewhere will watch the show and relate to Hannah so much that she decides to follow the same course of action.

This, however, is not a concern unique to 13 Reasons Why. Copycat behaviour of any kind can surface from a number of places and for a number of reasons. What is even more concerning to me is not only that Hannah Baker killed herself, but how she did it. I’m not talking about the stomach-churning razor blade scene in the bathroom though. I’m talking about the tapes.

As I covered in the first article in this series, Hannah records on 7 cassette tapes the 13 reasons why she has decided to end her life. Each side of a tape is devoted to a specific person who was a domino in the line that led to her fateful choice. These tapes, where she reveals these people’s sins against her, are intended to be passed around to each guilty party so that they can all listen to how they are collectively responsible for her death.

Copying a suicide is one thing—and unimaginably tragic at that. But to copy something like the tape scenario would be even more sick and twisted. In the show, Hannah claims not to have evil intentions with the tapes. And, to be sure, she is exposing evil that was done against her. But make no mistake about it, Hannah’s suicide is not just an act of escape—it is an act of revenge.

Hannah knows what the tapes will do to her classmates. She instructs the listeners to keep the content of the tapes private. Why? The only reason can be to inflict personal torment on her former friends. She desires for them to feel the full weight of their guilt and have no way out. She doesn’t really call them to change or to redeem themselves. She simply wants them to know that their actions made her want to die…and they are stuck to live with that forever.

There’s no doubt that many of the characters in the show should feel guilty. They wronged Hannah, and in some cases in horrific ways. But Hannah is not interested in their redemption. She is not really interested even in justice. Rather, she wants them to suffer like she did.

I seriously fear that some people who watch 13 Reasons Why might be influenced to copy Hannah’s actions. It is not uncommon to leave a suicide note, but Hannah does more than that. Her tapes are more than a record of why she did what she did. They are not even meant to explain things to her family. They are for no other purpose than getting even with those who hurt her. Her suicide is tragic enough, but the tapes make the whole situation an unimaginable monstrosity. Heaven help the family and community that ever has to endure in real life what this show portrays in fiction.

Not only did Hannah not have to kill herself, she also didn’t have to live in bitterness towards those who wronged her. There was another option. Hannah could have chosen forgiveness. This does not mean that she should not have sought justice for the things that happened. Bryce should have had rape charges pressed against him. Sheri should have had legal consequences for causing the car accident that killed Jeff. Many students should have faced serious penalties from the school and parents for their bullying and hurtful behaviour. But even still, Hannah did not have to hold a grudge against them. In fact, doing so is one of the reasons she did what she did. In her mind, with forgiveness not an option, she had no other way to live in her world of pain other than to leave it.

Though the show is intended to help those who are struggling with suicide, I fear that it might do the opposite. A better solution to Hannah’s suffering is never offered in the show. There is no alternative route that is suggested. A discerning viewer might recognize that Hannah’s actions are not helpful, but younger, more influential viewers (who are the shows primary audience) might not have the maturity to see it that way. They might look at Hannah as a hero. After all, she took control of her own life, she refused to keep allowing others to define her, she found a way to end the pain, and even a way to get even with those who deserved it. It’s as if Hannah’s ghostly hand reaches out from the grave and clutches those who wronged her and refuses to let go. Even in death she has great power over them.I worry that some hurting young person out there will see that and want it for themselves.

Yet Hannah’s post-life influence on others does not bring life, but more death. All of those who contributed to her problems are crushed under the weight of personal guilt and turn on each other. In the concluding episode, Alex shoots himself in the head and Kevin is seen stocking up on guns as if for a school shooting. Netflix has recently announced that there will be a second season coming out, so it seems we are in for another twisted round of death and destruction at every turn.

There is a better way. If we all insist on getting revenge with those who wrong us, the cycle of abuse and pain will just keep going around and around. No one will really get the help and love they need. We will all be trapped in a net of our own making. But it need not be that way. Hannah didn’t have to keep suffering in silence, and neither did her friends. There is hope for all of them, and it comes in the form of forgiveness. If Hannah had forgiven her enemies, even if she still sought out justice, she would have been able to live with herself. Some of the bitterness and pain would have washed away, and she could have found a means by which to carry on. If Hannah’s friends received forgiveness, they might have found freedom instead of enslavement to their dirty secrets.

Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. (Ephesians 4:32)

The healing balm of forgiveness is not a magic cure-all for personal pain, but it can afford freedom to those who are otherwise trapped in bitterness or regret. But 13 Reasons Why does not hold out forgiveness as a viable option. It’s a shame, because it is the very thing that everyone in the show needed. We all need forgiveness first from God—even those among us who are the butt-end of bullying are sinners in need of forgiveness. And, as those who have been forgiven by God, we can in turn forgive those who have wronged us. The chain of forgiveness is the only thing that can sufficiently replace the chain of anger that binds each and every one of us.

If you are someone who can relate to Hannah, I am asking you to consider seeing her end as a tragedy to avoid and not a victory to emulate. There is nothing victorious about it. Hannah cut off her own future and any hope that resided there died with her. Hannah’s parents are left traumatized and scarred for life. The classmates are buried in their own guilt with no hope of escape. All that happened is Hannah’s pain was passed on, and even magnified, in everyone around her. That is not a good outcome for anyone. She may have sought to make things right, but everything went disastrously wrong.

Suicide is not the answer. Revenge is not the answer. Hope and forgiveness is the starting place to a life of healing and happiness. It might not come immediately, but better days lie ahead. Hannah’s story shows us that she was a hurting girl who was sorely mistaken about how to handle it. I pray that would not be the same for you or anyone else.

Should Christians Date Non-Christians?

Few things in life can bring more joy—and, conversely, more pain—than a romantic relationship. Since it is such a central and important aspect of our lives, we ought to consider how God has designed for relationships to work best. They were, after all, his idea. Wouldn’t he know what is good for us?

If you are a Christian looking to date, you will inevitably need to answer the question: Can Christians date non-Christians? What does God think about it? The straightforward answer from Scripture is no, Christians should not date non-Christians. There are at least three reasons why.

1. Scripture says that Christians should only marry Christians

Technically the Bible doesn’t say Christians shouldn’t date non-Christians…because the Bible doesn’t say anything at all about dating. Dating is a modern custom that didn’t exist in biblical times. Yet that doesn’t mean the Bible can’t help us answer the question. Since the ultimate purpose of dating is marriage, we can look at what Scripture says about marriage to point us in the right direction.

The most common passage cited against a Christian marrying a non-Christian is 2 Corinthians 6:14, which says “Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers.” A yoke is a harness that hitches two animals together so they can plow alongside one another as a team.

The verse is saying that in relationships where people are bound to one another, Christians should not be “yoked” to unbelievers. This is because the pairing would be “unequal”. Why is that? Because Christians and non-Christians are on two completely different playing fields from each other.

  • Christians love Jesus, unbelievers don’t
  • Christians follow Scripture, unbelievers don’t
  • Christians have God’s Spirit living in them, unbelievers don’t
  • Christians are right with God, unbelievers aren’t
  • Christians are going to heaven, unbelievers are going to hell

It will be hard for two people this different to be on the same page about things, especially the big issues of life.

Some people point out that 2 Corinthians 6:14, in context, isn’t talking about marriage at all. It is referring to Christians in the church and how they should associate with each other. While this is true, there certainly is a wider application. Any context where Christians are “hitched” with another person should be considered, especially the more intimate a relationship becomes. What could be more intimate than marriage? Even if you reject this passage as restricting marriage for Christians, the rest of Scripture teaches the same thing.

In 1 Corinthians 7:39, the Bible says that a Christian widow can remarry when her husband dies, but “only in the Lord”, meaning that she can marry a believing man. “A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord.”

Later in 1 Corinthians 9:5, Paul argues that he has the right to marry if he so desires. However, it should be noted that he specifically mentions that the other apostles only marry “a believing wife”, implying that that is what is fitting for a Christian man. “Do we not have the right to take along a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas?”

Proverbs 31 highlights what a godly woman is like. Verse 30 says “Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised.” Notice that the wife that is being praised in the passage is a believing woman.

Also, back in Deuteronomy 7:3-4, God forbade the Israelites from marrying foreign women. Despite what some say, this is not to prevent mixing races. Rather, it was to prevent the mixing of religions. God did not want his followers to marry those who worship other gods because it would cause their devotion to go astray. “You shall not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons, [4] for they would turn away your sons from following me, to serve other gods. Then the anger of the LORD would be kindled against you, and he would destroy you quickly.”

Lastly, perhaps the most pointed passage in the whole Bible on this subject is from Malachi 2:11-12 where God says “Judah has been faithless, and abomination has been committed in Israel and in Jerusalem. For Judah has profaned the sanctuary of the LORD, which he loves, and has married the daughter of a foreign god. [12] May the LORD cut off from the tents of Jacob any descendant of the man who does this, who brings an offering to the LORD of hosts!” God could not be more clear. He calls a believer marrying an unbeliever “faithless”, an “abomination”, and “profane”. Clearly God considers a Christian marrying a non-Christian a very serious sin.

2. Inter-faith dating lacks true intimacy

Christianity is (at least in part) a worldview. It is a set of beliefs and values that inform and guide a person’s life and decision making. If a Christian dates or marries someone who is not a Christian, they are linking up with someone who has a different worldview. This matters because our worldview guides everything we do in life. It will be impossible for two people to have true closeness and intimacy if they do not share common beliefs and values, especially on the most important matters.

Tim Keller points out how this works. As a Christian, the most important thing in your life is (or at least ought to be) Christ. Yet if you are with someone who is not a believer, they cannot understand or relate to the most important thing about you. The thing that most defines you (as a Christ-follower) won’t make any sense to them. As a result it is impossible to have true oneness.

One of two things happens as a result. Either the Christian will continue to keep Jesus at the centre of their life and force their partner to adjust, or the Christian will compromise their faith in order to get closer to their unbelieving partner. Either scenario is a lose-lose. If the Christian remains faithful to Christ, the unbelieving person will never feel close in the relationship. But if the Christian compromises, they may be able to get closer to their partner, but lose intimacy with Christ as a result. Neither situation is ideal in the least.

However, when a Christian dates a Christian, there can be incredible unity and intimacy. Since they both share a common worldview and a common love for Christ, they can pursue him together. They each are running after Jesus and can cheer each other on. There is no competition for devotion to the Lord, but rather that devotion to God actually brings them together. They can pray together, read Scripture together, serve together, attend church together. They both are living for the glory of God and loving others. They have a common view of sex, finances, friendships, family, and the like. And even when there is disagreement, there is a common understanding of how to deal with it. Scripture acts as the arbitrator. Repentance from the guilty party and forgiveness from the innocent party is a given. In other words, they have the tools they need to make a 50 or 60 year run at life together if God should allow them to live that long.

As someone who is married to a strong Christian woman, I cannot overstate how much I appreciate this. Life and marriage is hard enough even when two people are on the same page. I can’t imagine trying to make it work with a partner who fundamentally sees the world differently than I do. A truly great relationship in such a case is virtually impossible.

3. God desires for us to pass our faith on to our kids

Maybe as someone who is only dating, the thought of marriage and especially kids seems a long ways off. But the wise person thinks long-term. One day the person you are dating (now or future) will become your husband or wife, and not long after you are likely to start having children together.

As a Christian, I’m assuming that you will want your children to love Jesus too. You’ll want to pray for them, teach them the Bible, bring them to church, talk to them about life and love and God. You’ll want them to have their own relationship with Christ and know the joy and freedom that comes with it.

Doing this task of passing on the faith is a lot of work. It is not an easy job. How much harder it is when your partner is not on board with it! Bringing children up in a home with mixed faith can be awfully confusing for the kids and frustrating for the parents. This is exactly the kind of thing God has in mind when he commands believers to marry only believers. Returning to Malachi 2, the passage goes on to say in verse 15 “Did [God] not make them one, with a portion of the Spirit in their union? And what was the one God seeking? Godly offspring.” Part of God’s purpose in marriage is to bring children into the world. And the reason God is so against Christians marrying non-Christians is because their children are far less likely to be Christians. He desires godly children, and that is hard to achieve when mom and dad are not pulling together in the same direction.

A family unit functions much better when there is agreement. In my home, it doesn’t matter who puts the kids to bed—they will be prayed with. It doesn’t matter if my wife or I can’t be there for supper—the other one will still lead family devotions. My kids never have to wonder why only one of us go to church, because we go together. They know that we both put Jesus first. There is a kind of unity that is wonderful beyond words, and God desires for all homes to experience this. But it only comes from obeying God’s will in these matters.

What do I do if I’m dating a non-Christian?

The truth is you already know what you need to do. The relationship needs to end. Of course this might be incredibly painful, especially if the relationship has continued for some time. But I can tell you that the pain now will be better than the pain you will experience down the road. I know many Christians who are married to non-Christians, and while they put in a lot of effort to make it work, their marriage is very hard and lonely. Often they experience more closeness with a Christian friend than their own partner since they can’t really talk about their faith at home. They can’t pray together or read Scripture together. They are pursuing Christ alone, while also knowing that their loved one will perish without faith. What a tragic and difficult place to be. It is far better to prevent winding up there if you can do so!

Conclusion: God has great plans for you

The real issue is faith. Do you trust that God knows what he is doing? Do you believe that he has a great plan for you? God loves you and wants good for you. He wants to direct you into the abundant life he has for you (John 10:10). My plea is that you would believe that God can provide for you a partner that you can have a great relationship with, one whom you can grow in faith with and have a kind of closeness that brings great joy. Trust him, walk in obedience, and he will direct your paths!

Which Bible Translation Should I Use?

The Bible was originally written in Hebrew, Aramaic (Old Testament) and Greek (New Testament). Since then, it has been translated into hundreds of languages. English is one language that is fortunate enough to have many different translations of the Bible.

Translating from one language to another is a difficult task. Translators must take into account several important factors:

  • Words in the original language may not have direct equivalents in other languages.
  • Some expressions used in an ancient culture might not make sense in a modern-day culture.
  • The meaning of words change over time.

As such, Bible translations vary along a scale from one extreme to another. At one end you have what is called word-for-word translations, which aim to translate from one language to another using the exact wording from the original, or at least as close as possible. On the other end you have what is called thought-for-thought translations (sometimes called dynamic equivalency) which aim to translate not the exact words from the original, but rather the basic concepts. This allows the translators to update the language and expressions to fit modern-day understandings. The most extreme forms of a thought-for-thought translation are actually less of a translation and more like a paraphrase.

The chart below demonstrates roughly where several popular translations land in terms of being word-for-word or thought-for-thought in their approach.

The New International Version (NIV), which is the most popular English translation in the world, lands roughly in the middle of the scale.

Which translation is best for me?

It is wise to make use of several different translations. When doing careful Bible study, it is good to use a more word-for-word translation. However, for long reading and devotional purposes, a thought-for-thought translation is easier to read. You might use a very literal translation to lead a Bible study class, but a thought-for-thought translation when teaching the Bible to young children. It also depends on your own skill level in reading and the skill level of others if you are in a teaching setting. Combining several solid translations for various purposes tends to be one way to get the most out of Bible reading.

13 Reasons Why: Reflection #4 – Your truth, my truth

After watching 13 Reasons Why, there is much to be said about this wildly popular and controversial show. I will attempt to share some reflections in a series of posts over the next couple of weeks. I will link to other articles as they are published. Be warned, spoilers and tragedy ahead. 

Reflection #1 – Why so popular?

Reflection #2 – A world without God

Reflection #3 – Maybe there aren’t any good kids

Reflection #4 – Your truth, my truth

Reflection #5 – Not escape, but revenge

13 Ways to Prevent Suicide

One of the more interesting characters in 13 Reasons Why is Tony. At first, it is hard to know if Tony is a good guy or a bad guy, but as the show rolls on it becomes clear that he is well-intentioned. Tony was entrusted by Hannah Baker with the cassette tapes she recorded explaining her suicide, and she left him a final task: make sure that everyone responsible for her death listens to the tapes.

At one point in the show, as Hannah’s best friend Clay Jensen is struggling to make sense of the material on the tapes, he and Tony get into a lively exchange. Clay openly wonders if all of the things Hannah says on the tapes are true, or if perhaps she is misconstruing things or, even worse, flat-out lying. Other characters in the show certainly accuse her of misrepresenting their part of the story. Hannah says on tape 1, “If you want to hear the truth, just press play”….but does she really tell the truth?

The concept of truth and lies is an intriguing interplay in the show. Hannah’s tapes are intended to be a tell-all of what led her to take her own life. But those who are indicted on the tapes vary in terms of accepting their role in that event. Some fully admit that Hannah’s portrayal of them is accurate, but others accuse her of misrepresenting the truth. In several cases, only Hannah and the accused would be able to know the truth, and since Hannah is dead, how can anyone know what really happened? It becomes a matter of he-said she-said, and this turns the teens against one another.

Back to Tony and Clay. Clay questions the truthfulness of the tapes, including his own, and argues with Tony that Hannah isn’t being honest about what actually happened. “It’s not true!”, Clay contends, feeling frustrated about the whole matter. “She’s telling us her truth,” Tony retorts, trying to give him a different perspective of things.

Who can argue with that? Hannah tells us her side of the story, and now that she is dead and on record, it becomes hard to challenge her take of things. Who wants to accuse the girl who killed herself of lying? How can anyone prove her wrong? It’s no surprise that the characters all find themselves in a moral dilemma of sorts. On one hand, they all did things that contributed to Hannah’s misery. On the other hand, there may have been other circumstances to factor in that Hannah doesn’t bother to mention. She simply gets to tell her version unchecked, and everyone else must deal with it.

Scripture warns us about failing to consider both sides of the story. Proverbs 18:17 says “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.” Problem is, Hannah Baker has made it next to impossible for the other side to share their version of events. She can’t be cross-examined. What she says goes, and because of that she paints many of her peers into a corner. Those listening to the tapes are left to wonder, do they deserve to be cornered? Or has Hannah manipulated the story to her own advantage?

Tony makes an insightful point when he says that Hannah is telling “her truth”. He implies that it doesn’t matter if her version seems off to you. Why? Because it was real to her. It is how she saw things, and no one can question it. People might not have tried to hurt her, but they did. Or, at least, she took it that way. How others see things doesn’t matter because how she saw them created the reality in which she lived…and it was something she didn’t want to be a part of any longer.

While Tony is absolutely right—Hannah was telling her version of the truth—it is very dangerous to suggest that such a notion is a good or acceptable thing. Is it right for Hannah to accuse someone of wronging her, even if they didn’t? Does how she take things override how things really were? In many cases, there is no doubt that Hannah was wronged by people in the show. But there are a handful of events where that is not necessarily so clear. Does she get to extend sweeping judgment in those instances just because she saw it that way? Or do those who are accused have a right to give their side of the story? Who’s truth can supersede someone else’s?

Pontius Pilate once posed this question to Jesus: “What is truth?” Is truth something that is objective, or is it subjective? Who gets to determine what is true when there is disagreement? If I see something one way and you see it another, who is telling the truth? You? Me? Both of us?

We live in a society that wants us to believe that truth is relative. What is true for you may not be true for me; we get to have our own versions of the truth. But this mentality is corrosive. When truth becomes untethered from reality and instead based on feelings, it becomes unhinged altogether. Truth ceases to be truth at all. All that is left are opinions and perspectives. And while opinions and perspective are useful, they are not solid foundations on which to build a life or a society.

Part of the reason there is so much vitriol in our culture is because we have lost the concept of real, objective truth. One of the most prominent examples of this in the show is when Hannah visits the school counsellor Mr. Porter as a last-ditch effort to reconsider suicide. She says it was her “one last chance at life”. She meets with him for only a few minutes and secretly records the conversation. She tells him that she is really struggling and does say at one point that she wants it all to end. It is a subtle suggestion at suicide, and Mr. Porter probes further, asking if she wants to hurt herself. Hannah refuses to talk about it, and Mr. Porter says that if she’s not willing to open up about things, there isn’t much he can do. Her only alternative is to try and move on. Hannah takes this as a rejection of help, leaves his office, goes home and kills herself.

Hannah clearly blames Mr. Porter for letting her down. The other students do too. Even Mr. Porter himself seems nervous when things go to trial that he might lose his job or be found to have broken the law. But I couldn’t help but notice that it is not so clear that Mr. Porter failed Hannah. It’s true that he could have perhaps tried a bit harder, but it is also true that Hannah shut down the conversation. In fact, she leaves his office and pauses outside the door, hoping he would come after her. He doesn’t, and Hannah blames him for giving up too easily. Yet it is worth asking, should he have chased after her? Is it a good idea to hound a student who is shutting down? I can say from experience that trying to have a student open up when they don’t want to can be counter-productive. Perhaps Mr. Porter was biding his time, hoping for a productive conversation soon thereafter. Little did he know it would never come.

Mr. Porter is legally obligated to report a student who he believes is in immediate danger of hurtful or suicidal behaviour. It is questionable if Hannah says enough to justify him doing so. Hannah seems to conclude on the tapes that he did fail her, but is that true? Just because Hannah wanted him to do more does not mean that he let her down. I feel bad for Mr. Porter. While I do think that he could have done more, it doesn’t help that Hannah was being passive-aggressive with him. When she comes to him for help and then shuts down the conversation, how is he supposed to overcome that? When she leaves his office but expects him to come after her, how is he supposed to know that is what she wants? This is one instance where Hannah is telling her version of the truth that might not be exactly as true as it ought to be.

The sum of the matter is this: Truth is real, and truth matters. People do not get to simply make up their version of the truth and then demand that others live by it. Hannah’s assessment of other people’s actions sometimes lacks a full and fair portrayal. Simply because she says she is setting the record straight does not mean that her perspective gets to go unchallenged. While her perception of the world around her is a painful one, that does not automatically assign blame to others. To be sure, many instances in the show are clearly sins against Hannah. But at least and handful are questionable. The truth might lie somewhere beyond her simplistic and one-sided viewpoint.

If we are going to make progress in helping hurting people find healing, the first step is to define reality as it actually is. Sometimes our perspective is what needs changing. To be sure, people need to be heard. They need empathy and understanding. But we ought not to allow people to define reality for themselves and then demand other people fall in line with it. Such a view of truth is destructive by necessity. It will breed only quarrels between competing “truths”. Rather, truth exists objectively outside of our subjective feelings, and we need to help each other pursue that. Your truth vs. my truth is a collision course that brings only casualties.

Hannah’s world was full of pain, but she believed that there was only one way out. She had defined her own truth, and needed someone to show her a reality that was different from the one she found herself enclosed in. The truth is that suicide was not the only option. It was not even the best option. But Hannah had boxed herself into her own version of the truth, and it killed her. Sometimes the best thing we can do for someone is challenge their sense of truth. But to do so begins by understanding that truth is not based on a person’s individual feelings. Such an idea just might suck a person into their own early grave.