From the Heart

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in ChristBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

Christian leadership often begins with a broken heart. In Mark’s Gospel we read:

When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them many things. (Mark 6:34)

How do you react to seeing friends and family trapped in needless sin and pain?

Moving the Heart

The call to action in many of my essays starts with citing statistics on suicide, often a result of despair and loss of hope. For me, suicide is personal because I lost my first best friend as a kid because his father shot himself to death and the family moved away. For those of us able to experience joy because of the hope we have in Christ, suicide is needless because it indicates a lost opportunity to share the joy we have. What moves you to take action?

Technical and Adaptive Change

Heifetz and Linsky’s (2002, 14, 18) distinguish technical from adaptive challenges. In a technical change, authorities apply current know-how to solve a problem while in an adaptive change people with the problem must learn new ways to solve the problem. A technical change typically requires nothing more than additional budget while an adaptive change requires an entirely new approach, often the need to change not things but ourselves.

This distinction between technical and adaptive changes is helpful because making technical changes when adaptive change is needed is the classic bureaucratic ruse to show progress in an organization sliding downhill. Grabbing for “low hanging fruit” is safe and permits the manager to petition for increased budget without asking for other sacrifices or convincing anyone to change how they approach their work. In a church context, this is like the annual appeal for members to bring a friend to church as a response to declining membership.

The Aging Congregation

Adaptive changes are required when something fundamental needs to change. Consider the aging white congregation located in what has now become an Hispanic or African-American neighborhood. I tell my kids—you better get used to making new friends because when you get older your old friends have a nasty habit of dying off. Asking members to invite a friend to church is probably not going to stimulate a lot of new members at this church. An adaptive response might be to plan holding events for the new neighbors—something harder; something riskier. Christian leaderships often requires difficult heart work before any real action can be taken.


Heifetz, Ronald A. and Marty Linsky. 2002. Leadership on the Line:  Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

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Church and State in the Confessions

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in ChristBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

The relationship between church and state evolves during the history of the Protestant Churches as reflected in the reformation confessions. The creeds recognize Christ’s persecution. The reformation confessions recognize tension between church and state but argue for separation of the secular and religious domains following Luther. In the twentieth century confessions, the old separation of the church and state is clearly breaking down with the increasing power of the state relative to the church and increasing secularization of society. The twentieth century confessions themselves reflect both new intrusion by the state designed to redefine of the role of the church in society.

In the discussion that follows I focus on the creeds and confessions adopted by the Presbyterian Church (USA).

The Creeds

The suffering of Christ under Pontius Pilate is the only overt mention of a relationship between church and state in the Nicene and Apostle’s Creeds (PCUSA 1999, 1.1 and 2.1). The persecution is known from scripture but not explained in these creeds.⁠1 Both creeds use the enigmatic phrase, a “holy catholic church”, but the need to emphasize the church’s unity (catholic) and being set apart (holy) is not explained. It could be read to separate the church from the secular world, including the state, but we are not told explicitly.

The Reformation Confessions

The reformation confessions codified this separation in Luther’s distinction between church and state. The Scots Confession, for example, reads (The Civil Magistrate):

We confess and acknowledge that empires…are ordained by God’s holy ordinance for the manifestation of his own glory and for the good and well being of all men. We hold that any men who conspire to rebel or to overturn the civil powers, as duly established, are not merely enemies to humanity but rebels against God’s will (PCUSA 1999, 3.24).

Elsewhere we read (The Works Which Are Counted Good Before God):

To honor father, mother, princes, rulers, and superior powers; to love them, to support them, to obey their orders if they are not contrary to the commands of God, to save the lives of the innocent, to repress tyranny, to defend the oppressed, to keep our bodies clean and holy, to live in soberness and temperance, to deal justly with all men in word and deed, and, finally, to repress any desire to harm our neighbor, are the good works of the second kind, and these are most pleasing and acceptable to God as he has commanded them himself (PCUSA 1999, 3.14).

Knowing that these divisions and relationships were entirely new during this period, the confessions do not so much codify existing relationships as establish new ones. In this sense, the reformation confessions may have provided the template for the relationship between church and state that inspired the U.S. Constitution (Smylie 1996, 57-61).

The reformation confessions are more than political manifestos. Because the protestant churches broke away from the Roman Catholic Church, they needed to develop more comprehensive statements of their beliefs, including statements of metaphysics, epistemology, anthropology, and ethics. The different confessions each cover these topics, but they cover them in different orders. For example, The Scots Confession starts with a description of God (metaphysics), then moves to discuss the creation of humanity (anthropology), followed by sin (ethics), and later by scripture (epistemology; PCUSA 1999, 3.01, 3.02, 3.03, and 3.19).

The Twentieth Century Confessions

The nineteenth century cast a heavy shadow over the twentieth century as the enlightenment was already past its prime. In Russia and later in China, the overtly atheistic philosophy of communism became the official doctrine leading to persecution of Christians outside of officially sanctioned churches. Belief in God waned in the western nations and the growth of new technologies led to the rise of state power relative to the church.

Official doctrine in the twentieth century still separated church and state, but religious skepticism combined with material wealth increasingly limited the influence of the church over public law and private mores. This skepticism included attacks on the metaphysical and epistemological assumptions of the Bible. The twentieth century confessions accordingly differ from the reformation confessions in that they neglect to provide their metaphysical and epistemological foundations and focus on anthropological and ethical prescriptions. While we might assume that they are grounded in the metaphysical and epistemological foundations of the reformation confessions, the twentieth century confessions stray from theological orthodoxy even in what is said.

The Theological Declaration of Barmen.

The growth of National Socialism in Germany in the 1930s led the government of Adolf Hitler to propose an officially sanctioned church of “German Christians” with overt political objectives. Representatives of the Lutheran, Reformed, and United Churches met May 29-31, 1934 and drafted The Theological Declaration of Barmen. Key participants in this confession were pastors Hans Asmussen, Karl Koch, Karl Iraruer, Martin Niemoller and Karl Barth (PCUSA 1999, 246-247).

The Theological Declaration of Barmen rejects six false doctrines:

1. Holding up other doctrines as of equal importance with God’s revelation in scripture.

2. Suggesting that parts of our lives are not subject to the reign of Christ and are subject to other lords.

3. Ordering the doctrine of the church to current ideologies and political convictions.

4. Vesting special powers to leaders who rule over the church.

5. Giving the church absolute control over people’s lives beyond the church’s special commission.

6. Placing the Word of God and the work of the church in their service of any arbitrarily chosen desires, purpose, or plans.

The Theological Declaration of Barmen organized no new churches or other bodies to implement the declaration, but simply asked the churches for prayer and support for participating pastors. With no official power, The Theological Declaration of Barmen attempts to persuade believers and thereby limit the ability of Nazi government to manipulate the church. (Barth 1959, 160).

The Confession of 1967.

If the Theological Declaration of Barmen responded to an external threat to the church posed by the State, then The Confession of 1967 responded to an internal threat to the church posed by the encroachment of modern and postmodern culture.

The Confession of 1967 builds on part of a single verse: “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor 5:19). The verse focuses on reconciling the world to God (evangelism) while the confession refocuses on reconciling us to one another (social ministry). In refocusing this verse, the confession crafts a four part mandate for the church:

In each time and place, there are particular problems and crises through which God calls the church to act…discrimination…reconciliation…ending poverty in a world of abundance…anarchy in sexual relationships … (PCUSA 1999, 9.43-9.47).

Nothing is left out. The summary statement for the confession reads: God’s redeeming work in Jesus Christ embraces the whole of man’s life: social and cultural, economic and political, scientific and technological, individual and corporate (PCUSA 1999, 9.53).⁠2 Meanwhile, the Supreme Court’s decision in the Roe versus Wade case in 1973 and rule changes increasing the availability of contraceptives intruded deeply into the personal lives of Christians rendering church interpretation moot. Even further, the Obergefell v. Hodges decision in 2015 redefined marriage to include same-sex marriage causing deep splits within many denomination over how to respond.

The weight of these changes was to establish a precedent whereby the State could intervene into matters previously reserved for the Church. This reversed a consensus about the separation of church and state that had prevailed since the reformation and allowed new voices to be heard on questions of morality that oppose even the participation of the church in public debate. Having overturned the separation that prevailed on matters of moral conduct, the State has increasingly injected itself into church benevolences, personnel policies, and property rights.

A Brief Statement of Faith.

The breakdown of the division between church and state established during the reformation appears complete in the merger of the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America and the Presbyterian Church in the United States in 1983. The merger itself can be seen as an attempt by the church to consolidate influence already lost to postmodern culture.

The newly formed Presbyterian Church (USA) crafted a Brief Statement of Faith consisting of only eighty lines which focuses on the humanity of Christ and a stateless world where we stand almost alone as individuals before God. For example, confession writes:

In a broken and fearful world the Spirit gives us courage to pray without ceasing, to witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior, to unmask idolatries in Church and culture (PCUSA 1999, 10.4, Lines 65-69).

Here the private work of believers is to deconstruct (unmask) idolatries in the church and culture equally, suggesting that the church itself is suspect in our relationship with God rather than an instrument of the Holy Spirit.

It is fair to conclude from The Brief Statement of Faith that the separation of church and state assumed since the reformation no longer exists. The culture, acting through the State as a secular religion, has intruded on the private life of faith and brought it into the public domain. The public crusades of The Confession of 1967 have become private crusades in The Brief Statement of Faith perhaps explaining the new emphasis in pastoral care and the psychological hermeneutic in ministering to a broken and fearful world.

Where Jesus contended with intrusion of Mosaic Law, the Church today contends with an activist, secular State within its very walls rendering the concept of a division of church and state entirely anachronistic.


1 More detail is, for example, in the Heidelberg Catechism (PCUSA 1999, 4.037-4.039).

2 While innovative, the confession followed rather than led major changes in society, such as Second Vatican Council of the Roman Catholic Church (1962–65) and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.


Barth, Karl. 1959. A Shorter Commentary on Romans (1940). Richmond: John Knox Press.

Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA). 1999. The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)—Part I: Book of Confessions. Louisville, KY: Office of the General Assembly.

Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA). 2011. The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA): Part II: Book of Order 2011/2013. Louisville, KY: Office of the General Assembly.

Smylie, James H.  A Brief History of the Presbyterians.  Louisville:  Geneva Press, 1996.

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Generational Reach

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in Christ

Honor your father and your mother, 

that your days may be long in the land 

that the Lord your God is giving you. 

(Exod 20:12)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

After the Trinity, the family is our first small group. The church—the bride of Christ—is the family written large. How we treat our family affects everything else we do, if for no other reason than little eyes are watching.

The family is under severe pressure in our time. The majority (about 80 percent) of Americans have seen no real increase in income since the 1980s. Fertility rates have fallen below the rates required to reproduce the current population. Suicide rates are a historically high levels, which, together with drug overdoses and premature deaths due to diabetes, has contributed to an unprecedented decline in life expectancy for the past three years. Meanwhile, the focus on individual rights, social media, video gaming, and cell-phones have left many young people isolated and fearful of assuming family responsibilities.

To be fair, postmodern life wears out families. For couples in their family-raising (ages 30-50) years, two incomes are required to meet the normal expectations for the American dream—two cars, a house, two-point-one kids, college education, a healthcare plan, and retirement savings—and eldercare competes with childcare for time leftover after work. No one can reasonably be expected to meet these expectations and many have stopped trying. Couples are delaying marriage and many prefer to retain a single lifestyle even after marriage, sharing life only with their pets.

In the midst of social chaos, Jesus calls us to live a sacrificial lifestyle. Lead a disciplined work life, manage your resources of time, talents, and money carefully, and care for your kids and your parents modeled after Christ under the mentorship of the Holy Spirit. Remember—the future belongs to those who live in Christ. Honoring your parents in a age that worships sex and youthfulness is a particularly obvious and righteous testimony.

The Eldercare Journey

For those not yet acquainted with eldercare, it poses a number of challenges that no one can fully meet. For the senior, growing old is experienced as a series of losses in function, physical abilities, and relationships, each of which need to be grieved.⁠1 For the care giver, these losses pose gaps that need to be filled and challenges in offering comfort.

Stepping up to meet these challenges is hard for caregivers because it presumes a role reversal—the parent suddenly becomes the child and the child assumes a parental role. This role reversal is difficult for both parties and the reversal may need to be repeated as different issues arise.

Consider the issue of driving. For suburbanites, every activity starts with a car trip. Driving is a teenage rite of passage for this very reason. A socially-active senior without a driver’s license is suddenly house-bound and must depend on others for transportation. Seniors are reluctant to admit their dependence and caregivers may not have time. Oftentimes, seniors only surrender their licenses after an accident because their kids are unwilling to raise the issue. Memory-loss issues only make the problem worse.

For all the challenges, eldercare also offers the opportunity for children and grand children to spend time with their parents. Where you once knew your parents as a child, now you get to engage with them more fully as an adult.  One of the first things that I did when my father came down with Alzheimer’s disease was to edit and publish his memoir as a prelude to writing my own. This proved to be a fruitful exercise because it deepened my understanding of him and made it possible to share the memoir with the caregivers that we hired to care for him. For the caregivers and for me, my father grew from a daily burden to someone deserving of empathy, much as God sees him.


Mitchell, Kenneth R. and Herbert Anderson. 1983. All Our Losses; All Our Griefs: Resources for Pastoral Care. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.


1 Mitchell and Anderson (1983, 35-45) identify six major types of loss, including:  1. Material loss, 2. Relationship loss, 3. Intra-psychic loss—loss of a dream, 4. Functional loss—including loss of autonomy, 5. Role loss—like retirement, and 6. Systemic loss—like departure from your family of origin.

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Covered and Healed

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in ChristFor we know, 

brothers and sisters loved by God, 

that he has chosen you, 

because our gospel came to you 

not only in word, but also in power and 

in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. 

(1Thes 1:4-5)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Do you truly feel forgiven and loved by God?

It is one thing to know that you are covered by the blood of Jesus in your head and it is another thing to feel it in your heart. 

Fear and Anxiety

In 2010, I signed up for a small group discussion at church. A couple days later the pastor’s wife called to inform me that the group that I have signed up for was over-subscribed and asked whether I would be willing to join another group. No problem, I said reluctantly thinking to myself–why would I want to join a group talking about fear? So I bought the book and as I read along, I found my life jumping off the pages–not only had fear crept into my life; it was quietly dictating a lot of my decisions. Through almost no effort on my part, God had directed me to a major stronghold in my life and helped me deal with it.

Max Lucado (2009, 5-6) observed that: ordinary children today are more fearful than psychiatric patients were in the 1950s. Fear displaces happiness; fear is unproductive; fear is self-defeating. After the storm on the Galilee, Jesus asked: why were you afraid? (Matthew 8:26) In suggesting the destructive potential of fear, Martin Niemoeller observed in 1933 that it was fear that transformed Adolf Hitler into a tyrant (Lucado 2009, 9-11).

Fear of losing one’s children, one’s job, or one’s health can paralyze a person. Who can contemplate Einstein’s theory of relativity when one worries about the roof collapsing? We live in an age of fear. 

Emergency Room

I recently made a trip to Cambridge, MA to visit my daughter and her husband. We had a wonderful time together, but two days before my return home I ate something that set off my stomach and it exacerbated a problem that I have with my prostrate. Unable to urinate, I ended up in the local hospital in the emergency room where they inserted a catheter, which I lived with for about two weeks. Because movement of almost any kind was uncomfortable, I was able to travel home but almost all of my normal activities—writing, exercise, volunteering, church attendance—halted during my distress.

Embarrassed by my condition, I did not advertise my sudden dependency on the good graces of my friends and family. Nevertheless, word got around and I soon found three churches and a lot of friends praying over me. Meanwhile, my wife proved herself to be an absolute angel.

A great peace came over me. For the first time in recent memory, I found myself anxiety-free. I have always felt God’s love; now, I felt loved like never before by the church and my family. Being a lifelong nervous eater, this peace displaced interest in food and I lost more than ten pounds, a healing brought about by this peace.

Loved by God

We serve a God of abundance. The Apostle John recognized the divinity of Christ through his miracles of abundance: wine, loaves of bread, and fish (John 2, 6, 21). The trademark of God’s healing displays itself as healing extends beyond the presenting diagnosis. In my case, I no longer need a catheter and I continue to enjoy a deep peace and weight loss.


Lucado, Max. 2009. Fearless: Imagine Your Life Without Fear. Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

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Finding Closure

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in ChristJesus said to him, 

No one who puts his hand to the plow and 

looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.

(Luke 9:62)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

It’s not how you start, but how you finish that matters to God. Jesus makes this point when he finds himself alone, talking to the woman caught in adultery:

Jesus stood up and said to her, Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you? She said, No one, Lord. And Jesus said, Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more. (John 8:10-11)

We all have history. What we share in Jesus Christ is the opportunity to live into a future defined by who God says we are, not what our sins might define us to be. This is the essence of our freedom in Christ.

The Plow

When Jesus talks in Luke 9:62 cited above about putting ones hand to the plow, he is reminding his followers of the calling of Elisha by Elijah the prophet:

So he departed from there and found Elisha the son of Shaphat, who was plowing with twelve yoke of oxen in front of him, and he was with the twelfth. Elijah passed by him and cast his cloak upon him. And he left the oxen and ran after Elijah and said, Let me kiss my father and my mother, and then I will follow you. And he said to him, Go back again, for what have I done to you? And he returned from following him and took the yoke of oxen and sacrificed them and boiled their flesh with the yokes of the oxen and gave it to the people, and they ate. Then he arose and went after Elijah and assisted him. (1 Kgs 19:19-21)

Here in this story, no one questions the commitment of Elisha to follow Elijah, but Jesus’ ministry is coming to an end and he demands a higher level of commitment as he prepares his disciples for his own death.

Os Guinness recounts the story of one eighteen year-old Jane Lucretia D’Esterre, Guinness’ great-great-grandmother, who distraught over the death of her husband in 1815 in a duel, gave up the thought of suicide through drowning as she stood on a riverbank because she noticed the son of a neighbor plowing a field:

Meticulous, absorbed, skilled, he displayed such as pride in his work that the newly turned furrows looked as finely execute as the paint strokes on an artist’s canvas. (Guinness 2003, 184) 

Mind you, this young man plowed with a team of horses that have a mind of their own!

Guinness’ story not only reminds me of the story of Elisha’s calling, but also of the importance of attending to our daily work as service not only for our supervisors but for the Lord. Imagine what might have happened to the young woman if this young man had abandoned his efforts after only plowing half his field that day.

Finishing well

The need to complete what we start, to take risks to advance God’s kingdom, is highlighted in Jesus’ Parable of the Talents. In this parable Jesus describes a businessman who, in preparing for a trip, leaves his assets in the hands of trusted assistants, in amounts corresponding to their abilities. The first receiving, for example, a million dollars, another two million, and a third five million.

When he returned from his trip, he asked for an accounting from his assistants. The latter two assistants invested his money and doubled it, earning their bosses’ praise: well done, good and faithful servants. The businessman then promoted these assistants placing them in charge of entire divisions in his company.

By contrast, the first assistant stashed the boss’ money in a vault and simple returned what he had been given. Seeing no gain from his confidence in this first assistant, the businessman criticized him calling him lazy and gave his million to the assistant now holding ten. The businessman then fired this assistant and sent him on his way. (Matt 25: 14-30)

Celebrate the Season

In my own life, I have always sensed that life is short, too short to dawdle. I have learned, however, that rather than running from one task to another, we need to celebrate the seasons of life both by completing them and by marking their completion.

Remember the Exodus of the people of Israel from Egypt. Once they crossed the Red Sea and witnessed the salvation of God in the destruction of the Egyptian army, they danced and sang praises to God:

“I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea.” (Exod 15:1)

After then spending forty years in the desert, God parted the Jordan River and they crossed into the Promised Land. As they did, God instructed Joshua to mark the occasion:

And Joshua said to them, Pass on before the ark of the Lord your God into the midst of the Jordan, and take up each of you a stone upon his shoulder, according to the number of the tribes of the people of Israel, that this may be a sign among you. When your children ask in time to come, What do those stones mean to you? then you shall tell them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off before the ark of the covenant of the Lord. When it passed over the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. So these stones shall be to the people of Israel a memorial forever.” (Josh 4:5-7)

These memory stones are sometimes called Ebenezers. Modern Ebenezers are things like birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, graduations, funerals, and simple things, like keeping a journal of answered prayers and other divine interventions in your life. 

When I have a bad day—get stuck in a moment—and need a good talking to, I often go back and read my own prayers and other writings. Being reminded of where I have been (God’s goodness in my life) and where I am going (our future in Christ) reminds me of whose I am and gives life meaning.


Guinness, Os. 2003. The Call: Finding and Fulfilling the Central Purpose of Your Life. Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

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Anger and Murder

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in Christ“You shall not murder.” (Exod 20:13)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The Sixth Commandment—you shall not murder—seems cut and dry. In case you missed it, the Bible repeats it five times using the exact same words.⁠1 The punishment for murder—death—is given in the account of Noah (Gen 9:11).

When Jesus talks about murder, he compares it with being angry with and insulting your brother or sister. He then makes a curious comment: [if]

“your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” (Matt 5:24)

This comment is curious for two reasons. First, at the time when he spoke only priests were allowed to enter the Holy Place in the Temple and approach the altar. Second, this comment appears to make reconciliation with our brother or sister more important than reconciliation with God.

So what is that all about? Jesus is reminding his listeners not of the Temple, but of the first murder story in the Bible—the story of Cain and Abel. He uses it as an object lesson. Cain got angry with his brother, Abel, after Abel brought a better sacrifice to God. For this, Cain murdered Abel (Gen 4:1-8). The lesson is that we should reconcile with each other before anger gets out of control and before we do something that we may later regret (Matt 5:23–24).

Jesus is making two important points. 

First, Jesus teaches us to prevent murder by removing the incentive to murder. This lesson can then be applied to all sorts of situations, not just murder.

Second, asking God for forgiveness (bringing a gift) does not erase the sin that we have committed against one another. If we murder someone, asking God’s forgiveness does not restore the life lost or heal the emotional devastation experienced by the victim’s family. Forgiveness cannot be just about words.

The point is that asking God for forgiveness, such as repeating a prayer of confession on Sunday morning, neither requires a change of attitude towards our sin (Jesus’ first point) nor compensating those hurt by what we have done (Jesus’ second point). True repentance (a real change in heart) answers the first point; making restitution (compensating our victims) answers the second point.

Does Jesus’ lesson mean that we should never be angry? No. Anger has an object. Some objects of our anger are selfish and evil; some are not.

Jesus clearly got angry about injustice, about those doing business in the temple (John 2:14–17), and about the hard-hearted Pharisees who refused to allow good works, such as healing, on the Sabbath. By contrast, the Pharisees got so angry at Jesus’ healing on the Sabbath (because it made them look bad) that they responded by plotting his death (Matt 12:10–14).


 1 Also: Deut 5:17; Matt 5:21; Matt 19:18; Rom 13:9.

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Transcendence and Identity

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in Christ“Then God said, 

Let us make man in our image, 

after our likeness…

So God created man in his own image, 

in the image of God he created him; 

male and female he created them.”

(Gen 1:26-27)


By Stephen W. HIemstra

For us as Christians, our identity is secure—we are created in the image of God. If you want to know who you are, look at Jesus, God’s son and our role model or, as I have said colloquially, Jesus is my denominator. Jesus is the measure of all things human.

So why the interest in identity?

If God the father seems illusive and Jesus is just a man, then the whole denominator analogy falls apart. Like it or not, Americans have a problem with the transcendence of God. The fascination in the identity question is therefore a mirror image of God’s evaporating transcendence or, in other words, if God is not real, neither are we.

The Problem of Dysfunction

Being created in the image of God (Gen 1:27) may sound quaint to postmodern ears, but it becomes terribly important in understanding the implications of idolatry, the worship of images other than God. Think of idolatry as a hierarchy of priorities. 

The First Commandment makes this point: “You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exod 20:3) The Second Commandment reinforces the point of the first one (Exod 20:4-6). Centering our living on the one who made us gives life meaning and stability. Not doing so, leads to many flavors of dysfunction.

Idolatry and Priorities

The focus on carved images in idolatry suggests pagan temple worship, as the Psalmist makes light of:

Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases. heir idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands. They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see. They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell. They have hands, but do not feel; feet, but do not walk; and they do not make a sound in their throat. Those who make them become like them; so do all who trust in them. (Ps 115:3-8)

The key verse here is the last one: “Those who make them become like them.” Image theology implies that we grow to become like the god that we worship, even if we worship idols. Our number-one priority, which is a question of identity and attitude, is effectively our god (Hoekema 1994, 84). Giglio (2003, 13) writes:

So how do you know where and what you worship? It’s easy. You simply follow the trail of your time, your affection, your energy, your money, and your loyalty. At the end of that trail you’ll find a throne; and whatever, or whoever, is on that throne is what’s of highest value to you. On that throne is what you worship.

Idol worship threatens all that we are because over time we become like the god that we worship.

Idolatry Hampers Spiritual Formation

Focusing only on time, how much time do you spend each week in activities contributing to your spiritual formation as compared with other activities? 

Many men spend much of their free time in shoot-them-up video games, often developed by the armed forces for training soldiers. Is it any wonder that, in spite of the fact that automatic weapons have been available since the 1920s, it is only in the last decade that we have seen a rise in mass shootings in public places in the United States unrelated to any political or economic agenda? Intensive activities form us and become part of our identity—spiritual formation is not the only formation that takes place.

Poor formation leads us to worship idols that let us down. When our idols crash, we experience an existential crisis because we must completely reorganize our priorities, which is never easy (Hos 8:4).

The Problem of Suicide

Consider what happens if your number-one priority is work and you lose your job. In spite of record low unemployment, anxiety, depression, drug addiction, and suicide are at record levels in the United States, and have contributed to a decline in life expectancy (Bernstein 2018).

Amidst the high level of suicide (Tavernise 2016), two age groups stand out: young people under the age of thirty and older white men, a group not historically prone to suicide. Among young people, the typically reason for attempting suicide is a broken relationship (idolizing a person); among older men, the typical reason is a lost job (workaholism). Both problems suggest a tie to idolatry.

Death by suicide is just the tip of the iceberg according to Mason (2014, 28):

Based on large national surveys, for every fourteen suicides per hundred thousand people each year, approximately five hundred people attempt suicide and three thousand think about it.

If psychiatric problems, such as addictions, anxiety, and depression, have a spiritual root, then talk therapy and medication can only ease the pain; they cannot solve the problem. A solution requires dealing with the root cause.⁠1

God’s Love

Because we are created in the image of God and are commanded to love him and only him, God’s jealousy is part of his care for us. The Jewish daily prayer, known in Hebrew as the Shema (the name), goes like this: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” (Deut 6:4-5) Loving God above all else serves to vaccinate us from some serious problems.

Reclaiming Lost Transcendence

The problem of lost transcendence arises because the world screams at us and attempts to drown out the still, small voice of God. Although God has created us and, in sending Jesus Christ to die for ours, has saved us, we need to make room in our lives—both mind and body—to hear God’s voice. 

The whole point of the spiritual disciplines is find space in our lives for God. It is possible to “fake it until you make it” with spiritual disciplines, but this is actually a fool’s errand because God stands outside of time and space—he can approach us but we, being limited in time and space, cannot bridge the gap on our own. Bridging the gap is the work of Christ.

In some sense, our faith in Christ gives us the strength to pursue the spiritual disciplines. The Apostle Paul writes:

“If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Rom 10:9)

When we express faith in this way, the Holy Spirit enters our hearts and bridges the gap through out faith in Jesus Christ. Transcendence becomes a reality when we experience salvation and we find a firm identity in Christ.


1 May (1988, 14-16) defines addiction as: “A state of compulsion, obsession, or preoccupation that enslaves a person’s will and desire” and specifically relates it to idolatry.


Bernstein, Lenny. 2018. “U.S. life expectancy declines again, a dismal trend not seen since World War I.” Washington Post. November 29.

Giglio, Louis. 2003. The Air I Breathe. Colorado Springs: Multnomah Publishers.

Hoekema, Anthony A. 1994. Created in God’s Image. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Mason, Karen. 2014. Preventing Suicide: A Handbook for Pastors, Chaplains, and Pastoral Counselors. Downers Grove: IVP Books.

May, Gerald G. 1988. Addiction & Grace: Love and Spirituality in the Healing of Addictions. New York: HarperOne.

Tavernise, Sabrina. 2016. “U.S. Suicide Rate Surges to a 30-Year High.” New York Times. April 22. Online:, Accessed: 13 March 2017.

Transcendence and Identity

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A Worshiping Community

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in ChristObserve the Sabbath day, 

to keep it holy, 

as the LORD your God commanded you. 

(Deut 5:12)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The divine origin of the Sabbath is well-attested in both the Old and New Testaments. In the Old Testament, it is the only commandment that appears also in the creation account and it is also the longest commandment—an indicator of emphasis. In the New Testament, Jesus refers to himself as the Lord of the Sabbath (Matt 12:8; Luke 6:5) and performs several miracles specifically on the Sabbath. Why all this attention to the Sabbath?

A Biblical Understanding

A key to understanding Sabbath is found in Hebrews 4, which list four aspects of Sabbath rest: physical rest, weekly Sabbath rest, rest in the Promised Land, and heavenly rest—our return to the Garden of Eden.

Physical rest is underrated by many Christians. Jesus says: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” (Matt 11:28) How are we to love God and love our neighbors when we are physically exhausted all the time? Sabbath rest allows us to build the physical, emotional, and spiritual capacity to experience God and to have compassion for our neighbors.

We see a clue to this interpretation of Sabbath when we compare the Exodus and Deuteronomy renderings of the Fourth Commandment. Deuteronomy adds the sentence: 

“You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.” (Deut 5:15)

Free people rest; slaves work. Sabbath rest is a symbol of our Christian freedom.

The Promised Land, promised rest (Ps 95:11), heaven, and the new Eden (Rev 22:2) all display and reinforce Sabbath imagery. The image of our Divine Shepherd is one who gives heavenly rest: “He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters.” (Ps 23:2) Sadly, this poetic image of rest only seems to come up at funerals.

The 24-7 Culture

Postmodern culture refuses to rest. Sunday is fast becoming just another day where the malls are open and employers seldom offer overtime to those required to work it. So why does Moses insist on honoring the Sabbath?

Under penalty of death (Num 15:32-35), the prohibition on work on the Sabbath provided a cultural alternative to Pharaoh’s relentless pursuit of wealth. Brueggemann (2014, xiii-xiv) writes: YHWH governs as an alternative to Pharaoh, there the restfulness of YHWH effectively counters the restless anxiety of Pharaoh. Sabbath rest appears in the creation accounts because God balances work and rest. Egyptian gods, by contrast, never rested.

By honoring the Sabbath, Moses created room for the Hebrew people to reflect on their lives and on God, the gateway to keeping all the other commandments.

Sacrificial Worship

The link between rest and worship goes beyond occurring primarily on Sundays. Marva Dawn (1991, 1) observes: “To worship the Lord is—in the world’s eyes—a waste of time…the entire reason for our worship is that God deserves it.” To see this link, consider the ancient practice of offering burnt animal offerings in the temple rather than human sacrifices. Listen to the words of Aaron during the Golden Calf incident:

“And he received the gold from their hand and fashioned it with a graving tool and made a golden calf. And they said, These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” (Exod 32:4)

No doubt Aaron was simply practicing worship in a manner that he had learned in Egypt—worshiping a Golden Calf (think of the Wall Street Bull) could be thought of as an ancient form of the prosperity Gospel! 

Sacrificing a bull (or some other animal) on the alter could therefore be another way for a Jew to demonstrate his allegiance to God, not to foreign gods. Because many of these foreign gods were crafted in the form of animals, sacrificing those same animals on an altar would be a gutsy, in-your-face type of activity for a Jew.

For us today, devoting our Sundays to worshipping God is to pledge our lives to him alone and not to the god of 24-7. In the same way, donating money to the church’s work is to worship God, not the god of money. Jesus speaks plainly on this subject:

“No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.” (Matt 6:24 KJV)⁠1

Because time and money are the reigning deities in our culture, offering God our time and money is our sincerest worship.


1 The King James Version transliterates the Greek (μαμωνᾷ), while other translations simple say money loosing the inference of deity more accurately that honors the text.


Brueggemann, Walter. 2014. Sabbath as Resistance: Saying NO to the Culture of Now. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Dawn, Marva J. 1999. A Royal “Waste” of Time: The Splendor fo Worshipping God and Being Church for the World. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

A Worshipping Community

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Misplaced Affections

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in ChristBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

The radio silence today on discussions of morality is killing people.

In my annual physical this year, my doctor indicated that Baby Boomers are now considered at risk for hepatitis C and require routine screening. The key justification for this recommendation was:

“There is increasing HCV [hepatitis C virus]-associated morbidity and mortality, as annual HCV-associated mortality in the US increased more than 50% from 1999 to 2007 [currently 3.5 million cases]. People born 1945-1965 with hepatitis C face increasing hepatitis C-associated morbidity and mortality.” (CDC 2019b)

What stuns the heart is how hepatitis is usually contracted. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports:

“Although transmission via injection drug use remains the most common mode of HCV acquisition in the United States, sexual transmission is an important mode of acquisition among HIV-infected MSM [men having sex with men] with risk factors, including those who participate in unprotected anal intercourse, use sex toys, and use non-injection drugs.” (CDC 2019a)

While one might contract hepatitis in a third-world country through exposure to unprotected water, in the United States one generally needs to engage in high-risk behavior to contract the disease. In this context, thoughtful teaching about the morality of avoiding high-risk behavior can save lives and reduce much suffering.

Public Health Crises

High-risk behavior has become a public health hazard in the United States . Given our recent experience with Acquired Immuno-Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), this conclusion should come as no surprise.

Roughly 675,000 people have died in the United States from AIDS according to the CDC (2016).  In addition, there were 1.1 million people in the United States infected with AIDS in 2015. Two-thirds of them were gay men. Most of the rest have been intravenous drug users, although spouses of victims can also contract the disease. The average lifetime treatment cost in 2010 dollars was: $379,668, which implies a drug market of roughly half a trillion dollars, one of the nation’s largest (CDC 2017, 2018a).

On top of HCV and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)  infection, the number of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs—chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, and chancroid) have growing rapidly over the past decade, especially among millennials and the elderly. A thirty-one percent increase between 2012 and 2017 (2.3 million cases) reported STDs cases reversed a downward decline in reported cases that began in the 1940s (CDC. 2018b). Today’s sexual liberality bears much of the blame for these outcomes.

Taking Stock

You may be thinking, why do I care? Isn’t using a condom sufficient caution and isn’t there a pill for every one of these diseases? The answer today is a qualified yes. Yes—if you are diagnosed early, then these diseases are treatable and there may even soon be a cure for AIDS.

The trouble is that not everyone has a health plan and gets a prompt diagnosis—sex has an addictive quality that often leads to taking more risks. More troubling is the observation that diseases often mutate into new, more viral strains—twenty years ago no one had heard of HCV and before 1980 no one had heard of HIV.

For those that want to limit this conversation to the realm of personal freedom and conversations with their doctors, the opioid crisis raises the specter of conflicting incentives in the health care system.⁠1 Treating AIDS is expensive and it may also be more profitable than treating other illnesses. What happens if drug companies and other health care providers become complicit in promoting alternative lifestyles motivated by their economic interest rather than concern for those afflicted?⁠2

Who exactly can you trust when a lot of money is changing hands?

Toward a Christian Perspective

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Before any conversation about moral behavior, know that God loves you because he created you and sent his son, Jesus Christ, to die for you. God’s love is extended unconditionally, irrespective of your health care status. But God’s love is a gift that must be accepted. The consequences of rejecting God’s love (or holding it lightly) can be severe.

The teaching of the church on the question of human sexuality has been clear since biblical times (Fortson and Grams 2016). Sex is reserved for married couples in a lifelong relationship between one man and one woman. All other sexual activity is sin, something that Christians are advised to avoid (Gagnon 2001).

The focus of a disciplined life is ideally on God. Extramarital sex leads to other priorities and denigrates the image of God that we should normally look for in other people.⁠3 One pastor I know makes the point that he always knows when kids start having sex because they soon drop out of church.

Doing Better

Knowing that the health care consequences of sexual immorality in this world can be severe, the critical question for those wavering on their response: if by your words you lead someone else into risky behavior, are you okay with the pain and other consequences? Are you okay, for example, with the problem that rising health care costs mean that more young mothers cannot afford care for their kids?

One of the most tortured women that I ever met was an HIV-positive prostitute who lost custody of her kids back in 2011. At one point she considered herself a consenting adult. Now, her kids have lost their mother. We cannot anticipate all the consequences of our decisions—the best we can do is to rely on God’s help to make better decisions.

If it is too late to worry about the above question, remember that we worship a God of second chances. Turn to him and find forgiveness, remembering Jesus’ words to the woman caught in adultery.⁠4


Campbell, W. P. 2010. Turning Controversy into Church Ministry: A Christlike Response to Homosexuality. Grand Rapids: Zondervan. (review)

Center for Disease Control (CDC). 2016. “Today’s HIV/AIDS Epidemic.” CDC Factsheet. Online: Accessed: 8 January 2019.

Center for Disease Control (CDC). 2017. HIV Cost-effectiveness. Online: Accessed: 8 January 2019.

Center for Disease Control (CDC). 2018a. Basic Statistics [on AIDS]. Online: Accessed: 8 January 2019.

Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality (CBHSQ). 2015. Behavioral health trends in the United States: Results from the 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (Health and Human Services (HHS) Publication No. SMA 15-4927, NSDUH Series H-50). Retrieved from (Cited: 18 October 2018).

Center for Disease Control (CDC). 2018b. Sexually Transmitted Disease Surveillance 2017. Online: Cited: 24 September 2019.

Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 2019a. Epidemiology and Prevention of HIV and Viral Hepatitis Co-infections. Online: Cited: 24 September 2019.

Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 2019b. CDC Recommendation: Adults Born from 1945-1965 (Baby Boomers) get Tested for Hepatitis C. Online: Cited: 24 September 2019.

Fortson, S. Donald and Rollin G. Grams. 2016. Unchanging Witness: The Consistent Christian Teaching on Homosexuality in Scripture and Tradition. Nashville: B&H Academic.(review)

Gagnon, Robert A. J. 2001. The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics. Nashville: Abingdon Press. (review)

Pope Paul VI. 2014. On Human Life (Humanae Vitae). San Francisco: Ignatius Press. (review)

Washington Post (WP) 2019. “Follow The Post’s investigation of the opioid epidemic.” Online: Cited: 24 September 2019.

Wener-Fligner, Zach. 2015. “Every US company arguing for the Supreme Court to legalize same-sex marriage.” March 10. Online: Cited 24 September 2019.


1 More than 200,000 Americans have died from opioid overdoses. Many of these addictions began with prescription painkillers known to be addictive and very profitable for the companies producing them.. (e.g. WP 2019)

2 Among the 379 companies filling an amicus brief before the Supreme Court on Obergefell v. Hodges were some of the largest drug companies in the United States. (Wener-Fligner. 2015)

3 Mary Eberstadt cites four prophecies made in the Pope encyclical that appear to have taken place: “a general lowering of moral standards throughout society; a rise in infidelity; a lessening of respect for women by men; and the coercive use of reproductive technologies by governments.” (Pope Paul VI 2014, 11)

4 See John 8. A good book on ministering to homosexuals has been written by Campbell (2010)


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Sunshine and Exercise: Monday Monologues, October 28, 2019 (podcast)

Stephen W Hiemstra, 2018
Stephen W Hiemstra, 2018

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

This morning I will share a prayer and reflect on Sunshine and Exercise.

After listening, please click here to take a brief listener survey (10 questions).

To listen, click on the link below:

Hear the words; Walk the steps; Experience the joy!

Sunshine and Exercise: Monday Monologues, October 28, 2019 (podcast)

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Monday Monologue On March 26, 2018 

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