Energion author Bruce Epperly talks about the messiness of the incarnation in God’s Birth: It’s Fragile and Messy. I consider the incarnation to be the center of good Christian theology.
This week as the story of yet another prominent Christian who had fallen passed through my news feeds, a young man who was pleading guilty to 18 counts related to sex with minors, I was led again to Daniel 9 and Daniel’s prayer of repentance.
We argue about the impact of prayer and what God does with our prayers a great deal. Does prayer change God? But there is a much more important question, in my view: Does prayer change us? Whatever it does, I think it reflects how we are thinking.
The Bible is quite hard on its main characters, never giving them a break. Their faults are put on display for all to see. Even the heroes of the Bible are presented with flaws. Daniel is one of those that is presented at all times in a positive light. There are those who believe he is the one referenced in Ezekiel 14:14, where he’s in a list with Noah and Job, both of whom are described as righteous.
But when Daniel begins to pray, he uses the third person plural: “We”
We have sinned, we have done wrong, we have incurred guilt, and we have rebelled by turning aside from your commands and decisions.Daniel 9:5 (my translation and emphasis)
I think Daniel had something there about a response to sin.
You see, our tendency is to blame others. Other people in other traditions, using other forms of church governance, believing other doctrines, and just generally being different from me/us (the righteous one/ones) fell into grave sin. They should correct their traditions, fix their church governance, clean up their doctrinal statements, and become more like us!
For decades, Protestants have spent their time looking down on Roman Catholics because they had pedophiles in the ranks. We Protestants, being wise enough to allow marriage in the ministry, obviously wouldn’t have such a problem.
They have sinned. We’re OK.
But the fact is that we have sinned, and the more news comes out, the more glaringly obvious it is that we are all falling short.
We have sinned:
- By looking at the sin of others and assuming we ourselves are immune
- By ignoring what Jesus said about not lording it over one another and making hierarchies
- By considering some people to be above accountability because they are anointed leaders
- By failing to be accountable to one another
- By turning aside less important people, claiming their word should not stand against the word of the holier, the more educated, the richer, the more powerful, or the more respected
- By shifting the blame from perpetrators to the victims
- By thinking our witness for Jesus could be made better by covering up than by confessing
- By seeing the least of these as least, rather than as God’s children, pearls of great price
- By thinking that we can ever criticize and judge from the outside
- By believing, contrary to Romans 13, that our behavior is only church business, and refusing to report crimes to the appropriate authorities
- By feeling all holy inside when someone’s sin is exposed and we realize (or imagine) that their sin is not one that attracts us.
If the church is to be a witness we need to be an honest and genuine witness to who we are. God knows who we really are. In a self-righteous prayer, we do not deceive God. We just deceive ourselves. We help ourselves believe that we are exempt.
It is in feeling that we are exempt, better-than, holier-than, more Spirit-filled, more Christ-like, more like a real church, and less subject to temptation that we prepare for a fall. Our fall, my fall, may not come via sexual temptation. But if I become superior and arrogant, if I fail to realize who I am, my fall will surely come.
May God have mercy on us all.
Yesterday I taught the Sunday School lesson for my class. The primary scripture was Exodus 32, the story of the golden calf. Our Adult Bible Studies title for the lesson was “The Permission Trap” and the goal was “To recognize the consequences of giving ourselves permission to do that which we know to be wrong.”
In one sense, one can’t argue with that. The Israelites knew they shouldn’t be making an idol, and that is precisely what happened, Aaron’s claim to miraculous sourcing notwithstanding. (Have you ever thought, “I know nobody is going to believe this, but I need some excuse”?) The Israelites did sin, and there were consequences for their sin.
The question in my mind as I read the lesson was whether this is actually the intended message. No, let me be honest here. I pretty much disagreed with that as the primary message.
It’s quite possible for something to be true on one level and to miss the mark when one goes deeper. The point here is not to say that making calves is OK, but rather that the message is somewhat deeper than “Remember not to make golden calves.” When interpreting stories, I would suggest that finding the moral (or a moral) of the story is not the point at which you have found the meaning. In fact, finding that moral can often prevent you from truly learning from the story.
To lead into this, let me note one Christian reaction, which is to blame the Israelites for being so faithless while imagining that we would do better. I would imagine that people who think this way have either spent very little time in the wilderness, or even in campsites, or they have ignored their own behavior. People who get away from their normal source of food and other supplies tend to get nervous. So the idea that the Israelites were faithless while we would be faithful involves looking at our own characters through rose-colored glasses.
That rosy view of our own characters also results from seeing only the surface problem. We cannot imagine ourselves constructing a golden calf and then dancing around it. We think we could avoid that. Unfortunately, our idolatry often takes less work-intensive forms.
To lead in from another direction (anything to avoid getting to the subject!), let me note that I read from Brevard Childs’ commentary on Exodus. Childs is one of my favorite commentaries, up in the top three. He goes through some of the source and redaction critical ideas on the chapter and does an excellent job as always. He points to some critical aspects of what the chapter teaches based on some of the “problems” certain people have noted in the text.
In an aside about the aside, Childs is a foremost, if not the foremost, advocate of canonical criticism. Canonical criticism involves seeing a passage as part of the whole canon of scripture. By nature, it can make a text look different depending on your religious tradition and view of the canon. For example, Jewish and Roman Catholic interpreters are working from a different canon of scripture than one another and than protestants. I would say that Jacob Milgrom does the best job of seeing the canonical picture from different perspectives. His own perspective is that of a conservative Rabbi, but he looks at usage and interpretation in other traditions.
In practice, scripture comes to us a part of a canon, whether that is the canon of our religious tradition or perhaps of our own making. We will read differently based on the setting in which we place the book. I will read a passage differently myself if I’m trying to understand Israel as an ancient near eastern people, Judaism as a faith, Christianity, or simply looking at a document as a piece of literature. I think we do well to be aware of all of those and I personally don’t privilege one or another point of view. (I would comment Edward W. H. Vick’s book From Inspiration to Understanding: Reading the Bible Seriously and Faithfully on this topic, particularly section 2, Canon.)
For my Sunday School class, I looked from the canonical view, and that leads me to think that the calf itself was an instance, a symptom, and not the underlying problem. I think the text is arranged to emphasize that.
Note, for example, that after we have the introductory story we begin and end dealing with the results on the mountain. In verse seven, YHWH tells Moses about the peoples’ failure. The conversation between YHWH and Moses goes on through verse 14, at which point YHWH repents (more on this in a moment). In verse 31 Moses returns to the mountain for a conversation about the same topic again.
The thinking on the mountain and the thinking at the foot of the mountain are quite different. The people are impatient with God’s timing. Moses doesn’t seem to realize that so much time has passed. This is a good place to put yourself in the shoes of the people at the foot of the mountain. Supposing you are climbing a mountain with a guide. The guide tells you to wait in the based camp while he goes away for some purpose. It could be supplies. It could be information. It doesn’t matter. If the guide doesn’t return in good time, what do you do?
Consider that you have no way of knowing where the guide is. He might have fallen over a cliff. He might have been killed by a wild animal. He might even have gotten lost. If any of those things occurred, and you keep waiting in camp, you could wait until you die. How long do you wait before you move out and try to save yourself? Your life could depend on accuracy.
Yet the meeting on the mountaintop moves at its own pace and the Israelites have to wonder. It’s Moses who has done everything. (We can remember, from the comfort of our easy chairs, that Moses was the agent of God’s action, but to the people, it looks like Moses.) Moses met with Pharaoh and announced the plagues. Moses stretched out his rod over the Red Sea. Moses announced the Manna. Moses struck the rock and brought water. And now Moses is gone.
Be honest! How long do you wait?
Moses hears what God has to say, and God proposes destroying the people. I don’t want to go into detail about this conversation, except to note that this is often the time when we get into debates about foreknowledge, predestination, and whether God can repent. I would suggest those debates don’t go well in this story. Let the story be the story.
Consider: If God is at least as intelligent as an ordinary human, don’t you think he’d know what reaction Moses would have at this point? We don’t have to settle issues of theology and philosophy to understand that God is making a point, and that the storyteller is making points about God and about Moses. Even a God without foreknowledge would know the outcome of this conversation.
We make this point of God’s faithfulness before we hear about what Moses did in the camp. There are consequences and results of my actions, yet neither my actions nor those consequences cause God to be unfaithful. This is stated before Moses goes down to deal with the people.
Let me compare this to someone who gets drunk and falls off of a cliff. This behavior was perhaps sub-optimal. Can God forgive? I think doubtless God does. But the body is still lying broken at the bottom of the cliff.
In Israel’s case, God can forgive the unfaithfulness, but behaving in an unfaithful manner has results. Let me put that into my own perspective. I tend to worry about money. When one problem is solved, I immediately find another one. Since I run a business with many bills, and in many cases narrow margins, I can always find a bill to worry about. Many bills have been paid. God can forgive me for being a worrier, and yet I will suffer the health effects of sleeplessness and tension.
The Israelites have a simple problem. It’s said that in war (and I suggest everything else) most tasks are simple, but are very hard to accomplish. After this event, for example, would be the story of the spies and the decision to turn back. Faithlessness breeds trouble.
Moses takes visible action in the camp. I can’t say that I’m in love with his procedure, but he is, after all, Moses, and I’m so not. Visible, human inflicted consequences can have a substantial impact on behavior. Behavior can be important in many ways. I see no contradiction here between God’s faithfulness expressed on the mountaintop and Moses’ actions taking control of a camp that was very much out of control.
And then we have the final, enigmatic statement. After the next debate with God on the mountaintop, we are told that God punished the people. We are not told when and we are not told how.
My suspicion is that faithlessness has its own punishment built in. I gain nothing and lose much by worrying. That’s how things work. For punishment to occur, all that is required is for God to continue being God, and maintaining the universe.
As a final note, I want to look at the basis of God’s grace and faithfulness. In verse 13, Moses appeals to the promise God had made to the patriarchs. There are those who hold that in this passage Moses is calling up the collective and collected merit of the patriarchs. Because of their merit, God should show grace to God’s people now.
There is no indication of such a thought in this text. It is not the merit of the patriarchs to which Moses appeals. Rather, it is God’s promise, God’s oath, sworn on himself to those patriarchs. That is why the appeal is precisely what works. It is an appeal to something solid and firm, the faithfulness of God who promised.
One can look through this story for the details of what was done wrong, and there is plenty of that. But the ultimate failure, and I know my ultimate failure, is that I lose trust. It’s the sin that underlies the sins, sin “living in me” (Romans 7:17).
I’d rather deal with the sins because I can measure them, count them, and even deal with them in some sense. How many times was I angry today? Can I be angry fewer times tomorrow? It sounds doable. But under it all, there is that sin, which is not one I can deal with myself.
That requires the One on the mountaintop.
(Theme Image Credit: Adobe Stock # 279252149. Licensed, not public domain.)
Continuing my notes on the daily passages from this week’s lesson, I’m looking at Proverbs 3:13-20. I assume it’s clear to all that the subject is creation.
13 Happy are those who find wisdom, and those who get understanding, 14 for her income is better than silver, and her revenue better than gold. 15 She is more precious than jewels, and nothing you desire can compare with her. 16 Long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honor. 17 Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace. 18 She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her; those who hold her fast are called happy. 19 The LORD by wisdom founded the earth; by understanding he established the heavens; 20 by his knowledge the deeps broke open, and the clouds drop down the dew. (Prov. 3:13-20 NRSV)
We again find ourselves looking at God’s revelation through God’s work. I like to emphasize the importance of not just reading words from the Word of God, as we do in scripture, but also receiving the Word of God as revealed in God’s acts in history (as well as our own lives) and in Jesus.
This passage is logically extracted from the chapter, which is not always the case, as I noted yesterday. You can see a simple inclusio which ties the passage together. In verse 13, the ones who are fortunate are those who find wisdom and get understanding. This is reflected again in verse 19 when these same to things (the words in Hebrew are the same just as they are in the NRSV). The tie between these two verses emphasizes the message. It is divine wisdom and understanding that the happy, or fortunate, ones have found.
But I think one can further deduce that real wisdom (and not all claimed wisdom really is) and real understanding derive, just as does all creation, from God. It’s interesting how often we try to discover those things that God does. That is, as opposed to things that just happen. But the scriptural view of creation would say rather than all things depend upon God and function because it is God’s will that they do.
As a believer in free will, I also note that my ability to choose along with the ranges of choices available all derive from God’s action and God’s will. There is no real independence. Everything derives in some way from God. I believe in free will, but each act of my will happens because God has permitted it and also set the bounds on it.
Today’s scripture is very positive. It emphasizes the good things: Long life, pleasantness, peace, happiness. Yesterday’s passage was taken from a cry of deep despair. Job was facing just how unlikely it was that God would respond to him. The wise person is not always fortunate in everything. Job, called righteous, suffers. The season of his life reflected in the book that bears his name was anything but pleasant and peaceful.
Is this a contradiction in scripture? Is it inappropriate to say of wisdom that “her income is better than silver, and her revenue better than gold”? (v. 14). Actually, I think that the contradiction, or better the tension, is in the nature of reality itself.
We tell young people not to text and drive. A young driver collided with my car while probably texting. So we say, “Don’t text and drive. It’s safer.” There’s that hedging. But no matter how safely one drives, bad things can happen. When the other car collided with mine, I was driving within the speed limit and obeying all traffic laws. Indeed, I was paying quite close attention. Yet from a side street came something I was not prepared for.
In life as well, unpleasant things can come upon us from a side street and smash our lives to pieces. It’s just the nature of reality. No matter how careful you are, there are things that happen that are beyond your control. As I write, people in Puerto Rico are awaiting Tropical Storm, likely to become Hurricane Dorian. Wisdom is useful. Good preparation is helpful. But there are some things that storm will do that nobody could have prepared for well enough.
We don’t abandon preparation just because storms come when they come no matter what. We don’t abandon safe driving because someone else may be driving while impaired or sending an essential text at just the wrong moment. These things help, but nothing is certain.
As a Christian, however, I believe that God has set a boundary. God permitted Job to be stricken by disaster, but God also set limits. I could definitely wish those limits were more, well, ummm, limiting! But odds are that when I want to see some flexibility in the boundaries, I will be less happy with the limits.
Perhaps God thinks of that as well, noting how unhelpfully we beat against the limits set on creation.
I’m teaching Sunday School this coming week, and the class uses the Daily Bible Study from Cokesbury. The first scripture for the week is Pslam 19:1-6.
The lesson focuses on creation, so it’s not surprising that only the first six verses are used. Some scholars believe that Psalm 19 is two separate compositions. These first six verses talk about the glories of God’s creation, yet the purpose of the Psalm is not simply to assert God’s glory as seen through what God has made.
In fact, I would suggest that the key to the purpose of the Psalm is found in verse 13, ending with being innocent of the “great transgression” or “grave offence” (REB). Dahood (and others, see Anchor Bible on this passage) maintain that this is the sin of idolatry. At the same time, Dahood suggests the first part of the Psalm is adapted from a hymn to the sun. If so, it was adapted rather vigorously and with malice toward its intended purpose.
The heavens declare the glory of YHWH, and it is made clear that YHWH sets the course of the sun. The sun, often seen as a god of justice in the ancient near east, is placed subordinate to the Creator. Similarly, the law is shown as subordinate to the lawgiver, who can give this law because He is the one who created all and put the sun on its course.
There is some tendency amongst Christians to see the Hebrew Scriptures as presenting a legalistic approach to righteousness, which is negated and replaced with grace in the New Testament. So here, in verse seven, we have the law “converting the soul” (KJV) or “reviving the soul” (REB). One might contrast this with Paul’s view of the law in Romans 6 & 7, but I don’t think this is accurate.
In fact, worship of the law would also be idolatry as would worship of the sun. That is the parallel between the first six verses and the remainder of the Psalm. Verses 12 & 13 remind us who is the one who can keep us from wrong.
I’m reminded of Paul Tillich’s definition of idolatry as treating something that is not ultimate as our ultimate concern. The law is important and so is the sun, but neither replace the one who gave the law or created the sun. As an instrument of God’s work in us, the law has a place (thus Matthew 5:17). Yet when we replace God and God’s power with anything less, we head into failure.
Psalm 19 is a reminder that God gives (grace) before he legislates (law), i.e., grace comes before law. Law can, in fact, be good news, in that it not only shows God’s requirements (which we cannot accomplish), but shows the glory of the purpose God has for us. God intends to make each of us something that we cannot even imagine. When we try to accomplish this through a reading of the law or through our own efforts to fulfill its requirements, we choose to take something less and make it ultimate.
It is because it takes our concern away from the ultimate that idolatry is so dangerous. Good things can be idols. If I do mission work in order to earn God’s favor or in order to be seen by others as a good person, then I’m settling for less than the ultimate. It has to be God working in me or it’s leading me down the wrong path. The wrong path leaves me short of the glorious purpose God has for me.
Psalm 19 also talks about God’s revelation, which is part of God’s grace given to us. God’s grace is shown by the gift of the sun to give light. Yet if we say that this is sufficient, and grab hold of that alone, we will fall short of God’s purpose for us. Similarly if we take our conception and understanding of the law, it will always be less than what God demands, but in the same way that God’s law is demanding, so it is a sign of the glory planned for us.
We can see this in God’s creation, in studying God’s actions. This is sometimes called general revelation, God’s Word without words. But we also have God’s instruction, which is God’s Word in words.
To many, the general revelation is less important. I would suggest that it is rather important in different ways. Through science we can study God in action. We have the danger of thinking we have somehow eliminated the need for God because we understand God’s creation so well. That is considered the weakness. We can misunderstand it, and use it to replace God.
But the same problem exists for God’s Word in words; for God’s law or instruction. We can try to let us replace God, not with God’s real law, but with our limited and limiting understanding of it. It is God alone who can keep our sins from ruling over us, and it is God alone who can sanctify us, and even glorify us, but God is the one with the glory; the real glory.
The question came to me after I had been talking about intercessory prayer and hearing God’s voice, but it came as a surprise.
“What should I do about sharing knowledge I get from God about other people? Can I tell other people so that we can pray more specifically?”
I had not been talking about getting information about people from words of knowledge or whatever other means one might think of doing so. Considering the number of people I have heard claim to get special knowledge from God, and the number of cases in which I have found this information to be incorrect, my first concern was that someone would consider an unverified thing they heard to be safe to share with anyone.
But the questioner had a different concern. Somehow, this person thought that if the information came from God, sharing it would not be gossip. The “spiritually acquired” information was somehow special, and would absolve one of gossip.
As an aside, I would say that whether you believe you got your information straight from God, picked it up by being a good reader of people, heard it from a gossip in your church, or put it together from clues that lead you to a conclusion, sharing it with someone else inappropriately is gossip.
I begin with this story to illustrate a basic problem. People give themselves a special category for spiritual things. They say things and do things in a “spiritual” context that they might never do in real life.
Whether you hurt someone through physical action or through some sort of spiritual activity, they are still hurt. In fact, by giving extra spiritual weight, such as by saying “God told me” or “this came to me during my prayer time” can increase the emotional damage that you can do.
I’d go so far as to say that I have heard this phrase many more times as spiritual manipulation than as genuine spiritual counsel and help.
Think about it! If you tell something that you think the church should undertake a particular project, they can easily object and discuss the merits of the case. If you say, “God told me we should do it,” they have to not only challenge your ideas, but call you a false prophet, speaking the word of the LORD when the LORD has not spoken. When you say you came to your conclusion in your prayer time, you can combine both elements, by giving yourself an extra spiritual aura and at the same time suggesting that your suggestion should be seen as coming from God.
Outside of the realm of decision making, and with people who will hear it as I intend it, I may say that I have heard this or that from God. I will note here, however, that what I hear from God invariably is about me, not anyone else. Actions I take based on that hearing may impact you, but I rarely hear something for someone else. The exception is often with prayer partners where we help one another confirm a course of action.
So how can one be sure that one knows the will of God? Surely I can suggest a way in which you can be certain and thus can act on what you hear from the Lord without further consideration.
No, I don’t. I do not have a checklist that will make certain. I find the tests in Deuteronomy very interesting. In Deuteronomy 18 we are told that if a prophet’s word is not fulfilled, their word is false. I call this the “dead test” for a prophet, because by the time you know whether the prophet spoke truly, you’re dead. Try the story in 1 Kings 22 as an example.
But in Deuteronomy 13, we’re told that even if a prophet’s word comes true, if they tell us to worship other gods, we are to reject them as false. This is a live test, but it kind of leaves us with a serious question. How do you know what God is saying? How do you know God’s will?
Now let me detour to those who think they will get all answers from scripture, for example. Some of the craziest decisions I have ever heard of came from people who thought they were following scripture. They also didn’t know God’s will.
So is there a problem there with scripture?
Well, you can call it a problem, but it’s really a problem with everything. I am a human. I’m finite. I’m imperfect, subject to error. Whether I’m interpreting scripture, following tradition, doing my best scientific calculation, or listening to the voice of God (as I perceive it), I’m still imperfect.
Consider a laser measuring device. Suppose it is capable of measuring the distance to a point to 1/16″, such as this one I found on Amazon.com. Now supposing we have a readout that will only read measurements accurate to an inch. We cannot actually get the correct measurement of which the device is capable because we can’t actually read that result.
Similarly, while God is entirely accurate, I am not. I cannot make a 100% claim of correctness no matter what. Any 100% correctness would have to be accomplished by God, and then in turn, the message is likely to be misunderstood by the next person down the chain.
So does that leave us unable to make any decisions? Not at all! We live with ambiguity all the time. We make mistakes all the time. Just because you make a mistake in church doesn’t make it incredibly devastating.
Unless, that is, you try to make the claim that you are, in fact, a prophet who is without error. You can make your claims more destructive by the claim of perfection for yourself. A good approach is whether it’s just your opinion or whether it’s what you believe you heard from God, present it as yourself. That’s not arrogant. That allows for God speaking to the other person. A number of times I have said something which someone else says was precisely what they needed to hear, generally when I didn’t even have the slightest notion that I was giving someone God’s word. The hearer identified it as something they needed without my saying so.
Decision making involves lots of sources and finally your own reasoning.
Yes, Proverbs says to “lean not on your own insight” (Proverbs 3:5). But even your understanding of what God has said goes through your own mind. You’re eventually going to have to decide, and your mind will be involved in doing it. Hopefully, it seems good to the Holy Spirit and to you (cf. Acts 15:28), and so it is not purely your own understanding, but you are going to have to make the decision, no matter what input goes in.
Personally, I take everything in, test it as best I can, hold what is good, and make my decision (1 Thessalonians 5:20-22).
I don’t spend a great deal of time talking about it, but following my MA in Biblical and cognate languages, I took one quarter in a MA in Theoretical Linguistics program. I had a full ride fellowship with a stipend, but after one quarter I resigned the fellowship and headed for more interesting places and activities.
In my introduction to linguistics course, the midterm test was made up of a short set of essay questions. I believe we had to answer three of four, though I can’t remember precisely. One of them had to do with comparative linguistics—right up my alley! So I filled it with examples from multiple languages and just plain had fun. More fun, in fact, than I’d had in the class up to then.
I hadn’t realized that the professor would choose to read what he thought were the best answers to the questions to the entire class. He chose mine. I wasn’t embarrassed by my content, but the context was totally wrong. The university had a strong TESOL program, and the vast majority of the students were in that. They were not pursuing theoretical linguistics. As a general rule, they probably had at most a minor in one foreign language.
One student responded immediately afterward with a question: “How are we supposed to write something like that when we don’t know all those languages?”
Her question was absolutely valid. My particular skill set was not that relevant to them. One can be superior at TESOL without knowing, say, Ugaritic. By presenting something not relevant, the professor had actually done something to discourage other students. If they had to do that, well, they couldn’t.
It wasn’t because I was superior to them. It was because my skill set was different.
Now let’s make a completely bogus argument. Why not? People do it all the time. Here it is. Knowing more is better. If those students learned more languages, they would have more sources of examples. Why should they not be required to learn all those languages? They’re probably just too lazy.
A parallel argument might be made about my high school education. Why not require him to take more credits in science and math? Why not require Algebra II, Trigonometry, maybe some Calculus? After all, he will know more!
Well, in response. I’ll go ahead an be lazy. In fact, I’m a high school dropout. It wasn’t for the normal reasons. I was overseas and enjoying running around the country. But the thing is that I was able to succeed without all those credits, including not having the credits normally required in English. In fact, I have just 2.5 high school credits, and one of those is in typing.
Yet we make this kind of argument all the time. For the things I find easy, it’s also easy to suggest that others should have to fulfill those requirements. Why not? It’s good knowledge and they might need it. I recall the surprise of some people trying to develop a two year ministry program when I suggested that requiring Greek was not a good idea. There are many reasons for this, including the fact that in a two year program you can’t learn enough Greek to be that useful unless you steal time from other necessary activities.
But let’s look at the church. We often operate on the same basis. Why not suggest people do it? Why not make the standard higher? We even talk this way in churches that hardly have any standards at all, because as members we want some.
Whether it’s modest dress, giving, mission work, church activities, or other moral issues in our lives, the solution is generally to suggest doing more. And yes, again, I realize that we rarely enforce those standards, but that makes it even worse. We push people to higher performance and assume they won’t make it, but we figure if we just push a bit harder—you’re giving one percent, how about two?—we’ll get a bit more out of people. When they don’t live up to the implied standard, well, we tried!
And they may have tried and failed, and added to whatever else they may have been dealing with, they now feel that they are not living up to what their pastor, Sunday School teacher, small group leader, deacon, elder, or generally picky person round the church expects of them.
It’s like telling (or rather, implying that) those people who were learning how to teach English to speakers of other languages ought to get down to it and learn a few more languages like the theoretical linguist down the row. (Or rather, the guy who had learned a number of ancient languages. I never did get a degree in linguistics!) It won’t help them do their job, but one can hope it will make them feel smarter.
Actually it won’t. Setting up higher standards doesn’t help one to fulfill those standards, whether or not they’re relevant.
But there’s another problem in church. When we require those “higher” standards, we also imply that the standards are what church is about, and we can suggest that other people, those who don’t accomplish those standards are not good enough.
I think this is a good part of what Paul is talking about in Romans 12-14, especially 14. It’s possible to read Paul’s toleration as an acceptance of just anything. I think Paul’s focus is on the message of the gospel. He’s giving up disagreements and minor points of behavior in favor of the message of the gospel.
I’m not going to do this verse by verse, but try reading those three chapters with this in mind. No, that’s not the only theme, but I think it is uppermost in Paul’s mind. How are we going to witness best to the message of the gospel? So then, “Don’t destroy God’s work over food” (Romans 14:20) the point is to put one’s focus back on the gospel. Forcing one’s detailed rules doesn’t make people better. It detracts from the gospel.
Being stricter, always trying to be better, will not necessarily make you better. It is often, instead, the road to more complete failure.
Last night in our Tuesday night group we discussed signs and guidance. How does one get and follow the right guidance from God?
We were reading the Matthew 2:1-12, and following my gospel parallels, I suggested a parallel reading of Luke 2:8-20, which we did. You have various signs, a report of scriptural interpretation, dreams, and angels between the two stories. There are some remarkable parallels of content, along with some substantial differences, fitted to the message of each gospel writer.
But being a person who likes to set off discussion I asked about our individual ability to hear from God. How would we feel about the various means of receiving a message from God? How would we discern whether a message really was from God.
Pretty much everyone had experienced the twin claims about hardships. On the one hand people will claim that you’re obviously getting close to something big, and the devil is trying to prevent you from getting there. On the other, there are those who would say that if you’re on the right path, things will be easy, so you should correct course.
The same sign seems to mean two different things.
We mentioned some responses at the time to the fire at Notre Dame cathedral. Any lover of art and architecture can hardly help but be saddened by that fire. Yet it immediately has become a “sign” for many things.
At Energion, we’re releasing a book titled Ditch the Building on May 17. It’s available for pre-order now. It’s definitely not connected. But in some people’s minds, it could be. The fire has been seen as a sign of the times, of disasters to come for our planet. It’s been seen as a sort of judgment on dead religion. My Facebook feed is littered with lessons being learned with varying degrees of actual connection. Well, really very little connection.
As I said in my book When People Speak for God, the last person who has to hear from God is you.
No matter whether you are listening to a new idea, a message someone claims to have received directly from God, or the interpretation of a passage of scripture, your individual mind, enlightened by the Holy Spirit, is the final filter to separate sense from nonsense. The last person, and the decisive person, to hear from God is you. Even the firmest believer in the detailed accuracy of the text of scripture will realize that many interpretations of that scripture are nonsense.
… This is the other end of the telephone cord. Inspiration is not just about God. It is about how God communicates with human beings. Thus it is not just about God’s perfection; it is also about humanity’s imperfection. It is not just about God’s infinite perspective; it is also about humanity’s finite capacity to understand.
The human mind is probably the most neglected part of God’s creation….Henry Neufeld, When People Speak for God, 4.
Pete Enns writes about what he believes is the most frightening verse in the Bible. His post is well worth reading. His verse should be frightening.
He cites 1 John 4:7-8:
Loved ones, let’s love one another, for love is from God. Everyone who loves has been born from God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love.1 John 4:7-8 (my translation)
People often deride “love preachers,” because the message of love is regarded as weak. And there are love preachers whose love is actually weak. But divine love is a very difficult topic, because divine love leads to giving of oneself for others. If that’s easy, you’re probably not doing it right.
Here’s the hard part for me: Loving the person who doesn’t seem to believe in love.
- The religious person
- The judgmental person
- The hateful person
- The purposefully ignorant person
- The shallow person
- The person who thinks my love preaching is weak!
In preaching that we need to love people who are addicted to some substance, or are homeless, are poor, or in some way different (faith, race, nationality, sexuality, etc) it is easy to break into condemnation of those who don’t agree and will not join me in loving my people list.
The people I list need our love as much as, or more than, the others. We do not expect condemnation to help people who are struggling with addiction, for example. Indeed, I don’t believe condemnation helps at all. I have to remember my many imperfections and realize that I also am not helped by condemnation.
The challenge, I think, is to love those who hate, to treat respectfully those who are disrespectful. As Jesus said, “Love your enemies.” I suspect it might be a good strategy.
(Featured image credit: Openclipart.org)