A Popular Pope

It was a moving, gripping photo. Pope Francis tenderly embracing a man suffering from a disfiguring illness. The picture oozed compassion, and spoke much of the obvious compassion of the Pope himself. The world saw the photo and responded very positively. This Pope was different!

In stark contrast to his predecessor—and perhaps to many of his predecessors—Pope Francis has broken with papal convention. He has shunned certain expensive aspects of the papacy. He has at times stressed his security detail as he connects with people in the vast crowds of well-wishers. He has demonstrated himself to be a man of the people, and the revelation that he was once a nightclub bouncer reinforced the idea that this pope is ‘one of us.’ The pope he replaced, Pope Benedict XVI, was an older man who seemed far less accessible and immersed in weighty theology. In contrast, Pope Francis has gone so far as to ask who he is to condemn people for being homosexual. Not what one expects from a Pope! For hundreds of years popes condemned people—often to death—for much less! The New York Times reported that a columnist for Britain’s Guardian newspaper said, “Even atheists should be praying for Pope Francis.”

There has certainly been a global warming towards this man of the cloth, and towards the church he shepherds. He was declared Time magazine’s ‘Man of the Year’ for 2013. But I found the following journalistic offering to be truly enlightening.

Pope Francis recently said, “How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?” One journalist commented on this remark by saying, “I think the new Pope is trying to get me back in the pew every Sunday.”

Think about this. Embracing an unfortunate homeless man; commenting on social issues; being a man of the people; shunning excess; showing yourself to be approachable and accessible… All of them laudable, commendable things. And they have understandably resulted already in heightened appreciation for the church of the pope.

But what do any of these things have to do with real faith in God? A certain amount, to be certain. Love, gentleness, goodness and meekness are fruit of the Spirit. Love and concern for others are Christian virtues, and few would suggest we see too much of it from religious leaders, or religious people in general.

But what do they reveal about the true nature of the papacy? The obvious answer is, very little. That Pope Francis is a really nice man with a kind heart says nothing at all about what the Roman Catholic Church actually stands for, actually believes. These actions tell the world nothing about the Catholic Church’s positions on the Word of God, and how it relates to Scripture. In short, even if Pope Francis were the nicest man alive, what’s really important is what he teaches from the Bible, how he represents the Word of God. If you want to judge the Roman Catholic Church, doing so based on the gracious demeanor of Pope Francis is an alarmingly shallow way to do it. A more accurate picture regarding the personality of this church can be gained by reading the church’s official Catechism.

If Pope Francis gets people back in the pew every Sunday by commenting on social issues, that would be a sad commentary on society. Shouldn’t church attendance have something to do with a church’s stand on the Bible? Based on what we’re witnessing with the rise of Pope Francis’ popularity, not everybody thinks so.

And that’s alarming.

What Does God Want for Christmas?

It’s Christmas time… And while you were busy buying gifts for others, did you stop to think about what God wanted for Christmas? The answer is found in Proverbs 23:26, where God says, “My son, give me your heart.” How much of your heart? Jesus said in Matthew 22:37 – quoting Deuteronomy 6:5 – “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart.”

What keeps us from doing so? You could perhaps answer this in several ways depending on either your perspective or your theological bias, but it could be answered with one three-letter word. Sin. Sin keeps us from loving God as we should, and even perhaps as we want (see Romans 7:15,17).

The general attitude towards sin is fascinating. I was reminded of this during a recent tangle with ill-health. It occurred to me that when we fight illness or disease, there’s nothing we won’t do to beat the disease. People submit themselves to chemotherapy – which in some cases can be brutal – and to radiation, which in certain cases can also be very harsh. People will choose amputation in order to beat disease. In 2013, actress Angelina Jolie elected to undergo a preventive double mastectomy. She did not have breast cancer, but had an 87% chance of developing breast cancer due to possessing a certain defective gene. The decision may have saved her life. And it may not. But because there was a chance – statistically, a good chance – that the surgery could save her from a life-threatening disease, she opted to have her breasts removed. A major, absolutely momentous decision.

Some people battling disease will follow stringent diets, will choose strange natural remedies (not that all natural remedies are strange), they’ll fast, travel to the furthest corners of the Earth, spend vast sums of money… all in an attempt to beat disease.

Now think with me of this clear parallel. While people – rightly – put everything they have into the fight against all manner of terrible illnesses, how much energy is put into the fight against sin? Sin is the deadliest disease known to humanity. It won’t only cost you your life in this world, but it will cost you eternal life. Not even a stroke or tuberculosis or diabetes will do that. But where’s the energy, the fervor, in the fight against sin?

Where are the think tanks assembled, the great minds studying how sin is best beaten? Where are the institutes, the research centers? What resources are committed to this? (One could argue that the church is a resource committed to this fight, which would represent a big investment. Others argue it isn’t doing an especially effective job.) Where are the people traveling the world, investing their resources, searching the internet, doing everything they possibly can so that they defeat sin rather than being defeated by it?

Yes, such people exist. But for the most part, sin is taken extraordinarily lightly, even though there is no question it will overtake the vast majority of people in the world, and possibly even in the church. Is there an urgency about this deadly disease? You might remember when AIDS became big news. People were terrified by it. Basketballers refused to take the court with Magic Johnson for fear of contracting this (misunderstood at the time) disease. And the world swept into high gear in a fight against AIDS, which while not having found a cure has resulted in vastly improved treatments.

What would the world and the church be like – what would my heart be like – if we fought sin like we fight disease? Before Jesus returns He’ll have a people waiting for Him who have learned to hate sin, to shun sin, and to embrace Him fully and completely. Be that person this Christmas time, the person whose heart is totally yielded to Christ.

Sin cannot dwell where Christ dwells. If you will surrender to Him now, and allow Him to work “in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure” (Phil 2:13), you’ll see the grace of God consume you and transform you by the renewing of your mind (Rom 12:2).

Thank God, we already have the answer for the battle with sin, or self, or however you’d like to describe the battle. Jesus is that answer. Give Him your heart – or allow Him to take it – and you’ll soon see that He is able to keep you from falling, and give you power and victory in the place of failure and defeat.

Give God your heart, and He will give you Jesus, grace, salvation, forgiveness.
Everlasting life.

“Thanks be to God for His unspeakable gift!” (2 Cor 9:15).