Should I be doing more by way of actions to prove my heart to God and display my faith to others?

Q. I’m currently struggling with quantifying my salvation in light of faith versus deeds. Work, study, and parenting leave me with little time to physically serve in the manner exampled by the apostles. I have not attended church for a couple of years, since my family members are not Christians and due to split working hours this is a period where Sundays are shared with them. I do however meet regularly with Christian friends. I remain constantly insecure about the authenticity of my salvation, despite experiencing some of the smallest and most tender answers to prayer, which surely show God is at work in my life and therefore not completely displeased with me. I know it is by faith and not works we are saved, but I am afraid that I don’t perform like a Christian and that my light doesn’t shine brightly enough. Is this just a season of my life where circumstances prevail and my private efforts/time with the Lord will suffice? Or am I potentially making excuses and should be doing more by way of actions to prove my heart to God and display my faith to others? With thanks.

First, let me say that I sense that God is stirring up within you a desire for your actions to be more patently congruent with your faith. The fact that you are concerned about this and asking about this shows that you are sensitive to the Holy Spirit and responsive to his leading. This, like the precious answers you continue to receive to your prayers, ought to encourage you that you are walking genuinely with the Lord.

But second, I need to tell you that as a pastor, I have unfortunately seen too many cases where “just for now” became a permanent situation. People who justified stepping back from Christian activity under one set of circumstances continued to justify this under later circumstances. Eventually these people lost the desire to be involved in Christian activities at all. Some of them ultimately even lost the desire to follow Jesus, and they made very regrettable choices once it no longer mattered to them to please Jesus. So while God is encouraging you in a positive new direction, I think God is also warning you about the dangers of your present direction. (We are never in a static “situation.” We are always heading in one direction or another.)

So ultimately I would encourage you to take initiative to make your way of life more openly congruent with your faith. I have a friend who says, “When you don’t buy something, don’t say, ‘I can’t afford it.’ Admit, ‘I choose not to make it a priority.’ When you don’t do something, don’t say, ‘I don’t have the time.’ Admit, ‘I choose not to make it a priority.'”

The fact is that at present you are not choosing to make church participation, for example, a priority over spending time with family. But it seems to me that you are accommodating their preferred use of time every weekend, and that it would only be fair for them to accommodate your preferred use of time on at least some weekends. For all you know, if you say that you would like to make it a priority to attend church on at least some Sundays, some of your family members might even go with you, if only so that they could spend time with you. The same thing could be said about other Christian activities, such as serving those in need in the name of Jesus.

This is not a matter of you “doing more” to prove your faith to God or to other people. The Christian life is not a matter of “doing.” It is a matter of being. Doing must flow from being. But what I hear in your story is that the doing that should be flowing from your genuine being is being blocked, not by your circumstances, but by your response to your circumstances. I would invite you to see your circumstances as something that you can control, at least to a sufficient degree, not as something that necessarily controls you and dictates your choices. When we allow something to block the doing that should be flowing from our genuine being, that is a threat to our being itself.

But I feel I should close with some words from the book of Hebrews: “Even though we speak like this, dear friends, in your case we are convinced of better things—the things that accompany salvation.” I believe you are showing that you are sensitive to the Holy Spirit and eager to obey his promptings. And so I trust that you will be able to speak with your family members and explain to them how you would like to have time for some of your priorities within the shared family schedule, and I trust that they will respond in an understanding and supportive way. God bless you as you pursue this.

Why do people use flashing lights in their Christmas decorations?

Q. I am at a loss to understand the introduction of flashing lights in people’s Christmas decorations. I understand the use of some light: “Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord”; “I am the way, the truth and the light.” But nowhere do I see, “And let the lights flash manically!” What think you?

I would say that the most brilliant display of light happened on the very first Christmas, right after Jesus was born and laid in a manger. Luke tells us in his gospel, “That night, in a field near Bethlehem, there were shepherds watching over their flocks. Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared in radiant splendor before them, lighting up the field with the blazing glory of God.”

I don’t think any contemporary display of Christmas lights could approach that. But we may hope that those who seem to want achieve a comparable effect in their displays are doing so with the same great reverence with which the shepherds responded to the angelic proclamation.

Why is it so difficult to reconcile the mind and heart regarding faith in Jesus Christ?

Q. Why is it so difficult to reconcile the mind and heart regarding faith in Jesus Christ?

I believe you are observing that there are things we know in our heads to be true about faith in Jesus that we don’t always feel to be true in our hearts, and you are asking why that is so.

I think the answer is that there is a difference between the way our minds and hearts work. Unless we have some motive for rationalizing things away, our minds work pretty straightforwardly to understand and accept things that are true, particularly when we are committed believers learning in community under the influence of the Holy Spirit. Our feelings, on the other hand, are influenced by countless factors, and as a result they do not always correspond to the objective reality of our situation.

So we may very well be walking in fellowship with God and in obedience to God, with no known sin or willful disobedience between us and him, and yet God may still feel distant for some reason, even though we know in our heads that he isn’t. Or we may know Jesus’ promise perfectly well, “Whoever comes to me, I will never turn away,” and yet we may still feel doubts about whether God has accepted us.

But the Bible itself addresses this very issue. The apostle John wrote in his first letter, “When we love others, we know that we belong to the truth, and we feel at ease in the presence of God. But even if we don’t feel at ease, God is greater than our feelings, and he knows everything.” This statement addresses the issue of a possible disconnect between what we know and what we feel. It tells us to rely on a third faculty, our capacity for faith and trust, to mediate between our heads and our hearts. We are to rest assured that whatever we might be feeling at any given moment, God knows that we truly love and trust and believe in him, and we can rely on that.

And I am convinced, from what I have seen in many years as a pastor, that if we continue to live out our faith, not relying on what we feel, but on what we know, our feelings will come around eventually. The steady influence of a committed way of life will come to outweigh the scattered momentary influences of all those different factors that go into determining how we feel.

Can Christians kneel at an elder’s grave or celebrate Halloween?

1. According to Chinese tradition, if an elder dies, it is necessary to kneel at their grave to worship. As a Christian, is this inappropriate? Why is that?
2. Halloween has become such a part of the culture, is it okay to “Trick or Treat” on Halloween? Thank you very much.

Both of these questions strike me as very much like the issue of eating food offered to idols that Paul discusses in First Corinthians. That is, they are matters that Christians of good will, with equal commitments to the inspiration and authority of the Scriptures, can legitimately disagree about. So the principles would be, “Each person should be fully convinced in their own mind,” and, “Do not cause anyone to stumble” (that is, do not do anything that would lead someone else to violate their own conscience).

Regarding kneeling at the grave of an elder who has died, one Christian might see that simply as a way of honoring the memory, legacy, and influence of a beloved family member. They would not really be worshiping, just following a meaningful tradition. They would know that the spirits of the ancestors aren’t really out there wanting to be appeased by worship and small gifts so that they will do favors for the family, and that no ancestral spirits could make bad things happen to the family if they weren’t appeased in that way. (As Paul says in his discussion of eating food offered to idols, “We know that an idol is really nothing in the world, and we know that there is only one God.”) But another Christian might recently have come out of ancestor worship, and so they might still feel that kneeling at the grave would be offering worship to a false god. If they saw you doing it, they might be led to do it as well, and then they would incur guilt for doing something that they believed to be wrong. So even if you felt free to do it as a meaningful traditional gesture, you could also choose not to do it if a person with a vulnerable conscience would be present at the graveside service or if they would find out about what you did.

Similarly for Halloween, if it’s just a matter of children having fun getting dressed up in costumes and visiting their neighbors and getting candy, that is harmless enough. I think Christians could have a lot of fun and get to know their neighbors better by giving out candy and by bringing their children around the neighborhood in costumes. But someone who was just getting free from occult practices might not be able to participate in Halloween in good conscience. They would take the association with witches and evil spirits seriously, and it would violate their conscience to participate. And certainly if someone said, “It’s Halloween, let’s have a seance” or “let’s watch a move about devil worship,” then Christians would need to say that they would not participate in those activities. Instead, they could suggest alternatives that everyone could do together and just have fun with.

So, as I said, for these activities and for similar ones, the principles are to become fully convinced in your own mind about what you could do innocently, without dishonoring God, but also to respect the convictions of others and not do anything that would lead them to violate their own conscience.

What are the three types of love and their definitions?

Q. What are the three types of love and their definitions?

Erōs is romantic love that includes sexual attraction.

Philia is friendship love. It is based on a sense of commonality between people, the sense that there is something in each person that “meets” or “matches” the other person.

Agapē is spiritual love. It is God’s love living in a person and pouring out to other people. It is unconditional and freely giving, not based on anything that is in the other person or that is desired from the other person. As Flannery O’Connor wrote in one of her stories, it is “love that appears to exist just to be itself.”

The verbs corresponding to each of these nouns already existed in Greek, and the last two were practically interchangeable. For example, Jesus said of the Pharisees that they “love the most important seats.” Luke translates the word “love” in that statement with the verb agapáō, while Matthew translates it with the verb philéō. However, only the first two nouns are attested in Greek literature before the New Testament. The early Christian community apparently coined the term agapē from the verb agapáō to describe a new kind of love, God’s unconditional love, that had not been seen before and so did not have a word to describe it. That usage is reflected in the New Testament.

All three kinds of love are part of God’s plan for a healthy and blessed human life, as long as they (and we need to be especially careful about the first one) are pursued within the framework that God has established for them. But the one we should make the greatest effort to cultivate is agapē. It will also make relationships based on the other two kinds of love that much better.

Is cremation acceptable for Christians?

Q. For Christians, is cremation an accepted form of the disposition of a person’s final remains, or is it a sin? What if you are a Christian living in a land-scarce country or city and cremation is the preferred method?

As far as I know, the Bible does not comment specifically on cremation. The preferred practice within the believing communities of both the Old Testament and the New Testament was burial. It was considered an insult and a sacrilege to leave a body exposed without burial, and the Law of Moses forbade doing that beyond sundown on the day a person died.

But this does not mean that cremation was unknown to those communities. For example, it was widely practiced within the Roman Empire until, interestingly, over a couple of centuries the influence of Christians and other groups with a strong belief in the afterlife changed the preference to burial. So one observation we can make is that  the New Testament writers knew about cremation, and so if they had wished to condemn the practice, they could have, as they do condemn other cultural practices that they deem unacceptable.

But I think the most useful observation is that the Scriptures know (if I could personify them, as the biblical writers themselves do) that not everyone has the opportunity to be buried. For example, some people might be lost at sea when a ship sinks. That is why, I believe, the book of Revelation, envisioning the Last Judgment, says, “The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what they had done.” (I take “death” and “Hades” here to be references to the underworld or abode of the dead, presumably of those who were buried.)

The bottom line, in other words, is that no matter what the disposition of a person’s final remains, everyone will be raised from the dead and judged appropriately, with hopefully many being welcomed into God’s presence for eternity.

This makes sense, because even a body that is buried completely decomposes after some time. It’s not as if buried bodies remain intact until the resurrection, while cremated bodies are incapable of resurrection. Either way, God must somehow reconstitute a body. We do not know exactly how that is done, but it seems not to depend on why the body needs to be reconstituted.

So I would say that cremation is an option that Christians may validly choose, perhaps for the reason you mentioned, to practice good stewardship of scarce land, and perhaps for further reasons as well.

Does the Bible forbid dating?

Q. Why is it that the church has latched onto the modern concept of dating instead of following the Bible’s command of betrothal?

I’m not entirely sure what you mean by “betrothal,” but in any event, I do not believe personally that the Bible specifies one particular way of finding a spouse. Instead, I think we see the people in the Bible following the customs of their own cultures in this regard, and the Bible warning against ways that those customs could be abused.

In some cases we see arranged marriages. One well-known example is when Abraham sends his servant back to the family homeland to get a wife for Isaac from his own “country and kindred.” Isaac is expected to marry the woman the servant comes back with.

However, in other cases, even though the parents would ultimately arrange the marriage, the child seems to have some say in the matter. For example, Samson says to his parents, “I have seen a Philistine woman in Timnah; now get her for me as my wife.” The parents don’t reply, “Now we’re the ones who will choose a wife for you.” Instead, they reply, “Isn’t there an acceptable woman among your relatives or among all our people? Must you go to the Philistines to get a wife?” So they don’t object, in principle, to Samson letting them know whom he wants to marry. They object to him wanting to marry a Philistine, but they seem open to accommodating his choice of a wife as long as he wants to marry a fellow Israelite.

In the New Testament period, marriages took place under the laws and customs of the Roman Empire. In those circumstances, while parents arranged most first marriages for their children, the children had the right, on certain grounds, to refuse to marry someone the parents had selected. Moreover, many marriages ended in divorce or after the death of a spouse, and men and women had much greater freedom to choose a spouse when remarrying. One possible meaning of one of Paul’s commands in First Thessalonians is, “Each of you should know that finding a husband or wife for yourself is to be done in a holy and honorable way.” If that is the meaning, then this shows that people in this time and culture could choose their own spouses, whereas in other biblical cultures, parents arranged marriages.

So, as I said, I think the Bible allows for a lot of creative cultural freedom in this regard. When it comes to dating, I would not say that the Bible forbids it, but rather that people should follow biblical principles to make sure that dating is done in a healthy and God-honoring way. For example, I personally believe that anyone a person might get into a dating relationship with should be a potential spouse. This means that for a follower of Jesus, that person must also be a follower of Jesus. (I say that people should only get into a dating relationship with a potential spouse because people who date can form strong emotional attachments, and those can lead to marriage, even if the people dating didn’t have that in mind to begin with. A simple way to put this is, “Don’t play with fire.”)

I would also say that people who date should be careful to maintain healthy emotional and physical boundaries, appropriate to the commitment level of dating. They are not married. They are not engaged. So they should not build their emotional lives around one another, and they should act toward one another in a “holy and honorable way.”

In short, I personally believe that dating is one way in which people in some cultures go about looking for a spouse. Like all such ways, it can be done in a healthy way or in an unhealthy way. The Bible gives us principles to show us how to do it in a healthy way. But the Bible does not privilege one cultural practice over another.

What is God’s perfect will about choosing a life partner?

Q. What is God’s standard and perfect will about choosing a life partner?

Thank you for your question. It is one that I was asked many times, in one form or another, during my 25 years as a pastor. Let me share some of the insights that crystallized over those years.

First, we cannot automatically assume that God has a life partner for us. The New Testament is clear that for followers of Jesus, advancing the kingdom of God is primary, and everything else, including marriage, is secondary. So God will have a life partner for you if you will be able advance the kingdom better if married, but not if you can advance the kingdom better if single.

As Paul put it to the Corinthians after describing how being single gave him advantages for his own work for the kingdom, “I wish everyone were single, just as I am. Yet each person has a special gift from God, of one kind or another” (meaning either singleness or marriage). In other words, marriage is not the default, and singleness the exception, as some communities implicitly suggest, nor is singleness (celibacy) a higher state that more spiritual people should aspire to, as other communities seem to believe. Rather, both marriage and singleness are “special gifts” that God gives to each person as He sovereignly chooses.

The Greek word is actually charisma, “spiritual gift.” So our first task in seeking God’s perfect will is to become yielded and willing to live either as married or as single, as God should decide. God promises blessings to people in both states: “Whoever finds a wife finds a good thing and obtains favor from the Lord”; “I want you to be free from worry; a man who is not married is busy with the Lord’s work, he is trying to please the Lord.”

Now it may be that, all things considered, you feel that God would want you to be married. As far as you can tell, you would be able to advance the kingdom of God better that way. In that case, I would still advise you not to go looking for someone to marry. Instead, work on becoming the kind of person that the kind of person you would want to marry would want to marry. And then trust God to bring the right life partner along in His own time and in His own way. It’s not up to you to find them. It’s up to you to be ready when God brings them into your life. You want them to be able to recognize you as the right life partner for them!

I have heard of cases where people felt they had spent sufficient time “becoming” like this and it was now time for God to bring a partner into their life. These people felt led into extraordinary seasons of prayer, sometimes with fasting. And in unexpected ways, many of them were connected with people who did become excellent life partners. So if you eventually feel that you have reached this point, then rely on prayer (perhaps with fasting) as your essential means of seeking God in the matter.

But another thing I’d say is that we need to be open to the unexpected. I’ve known people who very much wanted to be married, but no partner ever came into their lives, and over time they accepted the disappointment and bravely began to explore how they could serve God effectively as a single person. On the other hand, I have known people who were quite content being single and who felt that they had an effective ministry for God that way. But unexpectedly God brought someone into their life who they recognized would be an excellent life partner and give them an even greater ministry, in ways they couldn’t have thought of themselves. We have to leave it up to God to decide, and we need to trust that God knows best.

One clear standard in the New Testament is, “Only in the Lord.” (While these words are spoken specifically to widows about the question of remarriage, in the wider context of the New Testament they certainly apply to all believers.) In other words, anyone a follower of Jesus marries must also be a committed follower of Jesus. No one who is not a follower of Jesus can help you have a greater ministry for the kingdom of God than you would have without them.

In trying to recognize whether a person who has come into our lives is indeed the life partner God intends, we can rely, for one thing, on what is often described as “ordinary guidance.” That means the convergence of factors such as the teaching of Scripture, the advice of trusted counselors, the inner witness of the Holy Spirit, what the circumstances permit, the God-given desires of our hearts, etc. I personally have found that our parents (if they are still living, or otherwise people who have become like parents to us in their stead) are given special insight into whether a given person would be a good life partner for us. My late wife and I had each resolved, before we became serious about one another, that we would not marry anyone without our parents’ blessing. I feel that this resolution served us very well. (Obviously we did receive the blessing of both sets of parents, or we wouldn’t have gotten married!) I also have to say that unfortunately I have seen people marry against their parents’ wishes and suffer greatly for it afterwards.

But beyond this “ordinary” guidance, I have noticed over the years that very many times people receive “extraordinary” guidance about who to marry. That form of guidance is a direct communication from God, so that you just know, perhaps without knowing how you know. I have seen this happen so frequently, in fact, that I have come to believe that God will often give such guidance precisely because the decision about who to marry is so important and has such a great impact on our entire life and future.

I hope these reflections are helpful to you. And may God direct you into His perfect will in this matter for your life.

Why does Jesus sometimes seem to give certain disciples special treatment?

Q. Jesus has Peter, James, and John join Him to observe the Transfiguration. Why only these three? And, elsewhere Jesus seems to choose only certain disciples to reveal truth to and not others. So, how can we understand this? Obviously, it’s not favoritism, but maybe cliques are not all bad?

You’re right that Jesus allowed Peter, James, and John to see some parts of his ministry firsthand that the other disciples didn’t get to see. According to Mark, for example, Jesus brought only the three of them with him not just to the mountain of the Transfiguration, but also to the home of Jairus, whose daughter he raised from the dead, and apart with him in the Garden of Gethsemane. Mark also specifies that it was Peter, James, and John who asked Jesus what he meant about the temple being destroyed, prompting what is known as the Olivet Discourse (Jesus’ long teaching about the signs of the end).

You’re also right that different disciples seems to be singled out at other times for teaching and attention. According to John, for example, before Jesus fed the five thousand, he asked Philip where they could get bread to feed the large crowd. John explains that Jesus “asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do.” We should understand the word “test” in the sense of “challenge”; it wasn’t the case that Philip had to give a good answer or he couldn’t be a disciple any more! Rather, Jesus saw a “teachable moment” and made use of it for Philip’s advantage.

I also agree with you that this isn’t favoritism. Rather, Jesus chose to make an effective and strategic investment in specific disciples at specific times for their development as his followers and as future leaders. It’s generally accepted that someone can only have a deep influence on two or three other people at a given time. But they can have a strong influence on about a further dozen people. We see this illustrated and perhaps modeled for us in the example of Jesus.

I’m not sure I’d use the word clique, since that word tends to have a negative connotation. People in a clique are more opposed to including others than they should be. Let’s just say that Jesus shows us how to be intentional in our discipleship of others by recognizing where and how we can invest most effectively.

How do you “honor father and mother” in a toxic and abusive family?

Q. How does one “honor their father and mother” in a toxic and abusive family? I’ve been abused and suffered much damage from my parents. I  feel so unsafe around them that I’ve had to put up boundaries such as never being alone with them. Neither of my parents are repentant or acknowledge that they have done anything wrong. Instead, my mother uses Jesus as a means to manipulate others and shame them for being bad Christians if they don’t do what she wants them to. How do I “honor father and mother” in this situation? It doesn’t matter to me any more that my parents won’t acknowledge their wrongdoings. I just want to love Jesus and love others. But I’m not sure what that looks like in this context.

Thank you very much for your question. During my years a pastor, I unfortunately encountered similar situations. However, out of those situations, I can offer you great encouragement. I have seen Christian women and men escape from the cycle of abuse, heal from the damage they suffered, become free from bitterness, and ultimately exhibit a gracious and loving spirit, honoring their parents from a safe distance in appropriate and healthy ways as a way of honoring God. I already hear something of that gracious spirit in your question, so I think you are on your way there yourself. Let me offer some further thoughts to help you along your way.

First, you are very wise to establish boundaries with your parents. You are not honoring them if you make yourself available to them to allow them to continue acting in a way so contrary to God’s intentions. Honoring them means recognizing who God created them to be and relating to them as those people—even if this means, for now, simply taking away an opportunity for them not to act like those people.

I hope you are getting some good counsel or reading some good books about establishing healthy interpersonal boundaries. This was not modeled for you in your family, so you will need to learn it as a new skill. I should warn you that in any unhealthy system (such as a toxic family), the person who points out that there’s a problem is considered to be the problem. So your boundary-setting resolve will likely be misunderstood and resisted, and you will be falsely accused of having other motives. But stick to it. Create a healthy space for yourself in life.

Second, you will need to forgive your parents. This will be good for your own soul and your relationship with God, since Jesus told us, “Forgive as you have been forgiven.” It will also be good for your health and peace of mind, since bitterness is a toxin that insidiously poisons anyone who hangs on to it. But this will also be good for your parents, too. When we forgive someone, we “let go” of what they’ve done to us. This actually frees them from being frozen in our minds and wills as the people who did that, and I believe it makes grace available to them to change. This is a further way of honoring your father and mother by helping them become the people God created them to be.

In terms of the practicalities of forgiveness, I invite you to read this post, which I wrote in response to a question that was similar to yours. Please consider the main points I make there: (1) Forgiving someone doesn’t mean letting them hurt you all over again; (2) Forgiveness is an act of the will that must be completed by emotional work; (3) Forgiveness is not a substitute for establishing personal boundaries; (4) Forgiveness takes one, reconciliation takes two.

Third, I hope that you have found (or can find) a loving and supporting community in which you can heal and grow into the person God created you to be. I encourage you to get counsel or read books about family systems and about abuse—including spiritual abuse, which seems to be your mother’s preferred means of control and manipulation. Recognize the people in your life who are able to see you as God sees you, and come to see yourself through their eyes. Believe what they are telling you about yourself. This is a means that the Holy Spirit will use to erase the negative voices and accusations in your head and replace them with gracious, life-giving truths.

Finally, under safe conditions, when you are ready, look for the ways God might show you in which you can “honor” your parents through practical means. It’s interesting that the only application Jesus ever made in his teaching of the commandment to honor father and mother was to care and provide for one’s parents in their old age. I have seen Christian men and women who were healed, freed from bitterness, and safely established behind healthy boundaries re-engage abusive parents in this way—putting on a 50th-anniversary celebration, for example, or seeing that repairs and maintenance were needed in the family home and arranging for this and helping to pay for it. These things were done not because of guilt and manipulation on the parents’ part, but because adult children wanted to honor their parents as a way of honoring the Lord.

I trust that these same things will be seen in your life as you come to understand more and more about your Heavenly Father’s love for you, find healing and freedom in that love, and so come to have compassion on your earthly father and mother.