Browsed by
Category: Discipleship

The Danger of Making Things Tougher

The Danger of Making Things Tougher

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.

(Please check out the article FROM DOBE TO BEDO by Pat Badstibner on Energion Direct’s From Our Authors.

Signs and Guidance

Signs and Guidance

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.
What Is the Most Frightening Verse?

What Is the Most Frightening Verse?

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)

Pious People Popping Platitude Pills

Pious People Popping Platitude Pills

Tacky title, eh? I don’t apologize. I had fun constructing it.

The other day someone asked me whether there were any scriptures I liked to go to when I was having problems. I gave the answer immediately and then explained, but I’m going to do the opposite here. I’m going to explain and then tell you the most helpful passage of scripture for me when life varies from irritating to frightening.

Well, I lied. I’ll give you part of the answer. There aren’t any “nice” passages of scripture that I use to give me comfort. In fact, when people quote those at me, I get annoyed. I already know them. If they were going to help me, they would have already.

What good does it do me to be reminded that God owns the cattle on a thousand hills? Send some of those annoying animals to market and pass the money on to me!

What good does it do me to be reminded that God heals all my diseases when I have a headache and stuffy head and can’t concentrate on my work? Heal my disease, and do it now!

Besides, it’s likely I can give you sound exegetical arguments for why those passages don’t apply to my situation.

It isn’t that I don’t believe in prayer, or God’s healing, or God’s provision. I can cite plenty of examples.

Counterexamples, too.

My father was healed in a manner I regard as miraculous. One day in 1971 he was told he would never work again, and would be dead in 10 years. Two weeks later, after he called for the elders of the church and they anointed him with oil and prayer, he was back at work, and was the sole physician for a 54 bed hospital, on call 24/7 for a year. He lived another 35+ years.

Then there was the time when a friend of his had a heart attack. Despite his prayers and his best efforts as a physician, he was unable to revive and stabilize the man. It was the longest and hardest he had ever worked on anyone. He didn’t want to give in. But the man still died.

A friend asked me to pray with him for $1500 to pay his mortgage so he wouldn’t lose his house. I did so gladly. The next day $1500 arrived in his mailbox.

My thoughts? Where is my rent money for my mobile home? I’m honestly not resentful that people have bigger houses. (I do sin through jealousy and resentment about other things, but I like my mobile home.) But I was having a hard time coming up with the rent at the same time as, apparently in answer to my prayer, my friend got his mortgage payment.

I was asked to go on a mission trip to do some teaching. I’d just gotten back from a month overseas, and had nothing with which to pay for a trip. I flippantly said, well, the Lord has to provide, because I’m tapped out, but I’ll go of God provides. Within the week the trip was paid for. As I was preparing to leave I found that I had no spending money. I figured I’d survive. God had, after all, provided the cost of the trip. A friend drove up in my driveway and said, “You’re going to need some spending money on your trip.” He handed me two $100 bills.

No, no negative “balance” story this time.

Sometimes I’m just whining and crying, but sometimes God doesn’t make it easy. God doesn’t intend to. What I never appreciate is a platitude I memorized a long time ago.

Yes, a passage of scripture can be a platitude under the right set of circumstances.

In scripture, one can balance great promises of good things with times of trouble, times that are ordained by God. We do ourselves and everyone else a disservice by reading the nice stuff and skipping over the bad.

In Sunday school, we hear the story of Peter being freed from prison (Acts 12:3ff). We rarely mention that this comes right after James is beheaded (Acts 12:1-2). We like Samuel and Kings and the message that if we do what is right, God will bless, but we’re less happy with Job, in which a person identified as righteous suffers substantially. Or we have Ecclesiastes 9:11 which seems to tell us that our efforts don’t matter, and instead of proposing an alternative of God’s will, says “time and chance happens to them all” (Ecclesiastes 9:11).

In fact, to some extent we are promised trouble, particularly persecution. Perhaps when life is going too well we should ask ourselves whether we are doing what we should!

The problem is one I’ve observed regarding Hallmark movies. The boy doesn’t always get the girl (or the girl the boy), your parents don’t always reconcile at the last minute, your business isn’t always rescued from bankruptcy by a helpful crusader, and no, your child doesn’t always get better. It’s nice to have a movie that says so, but it’s not always our experience.

I remember standing at Disney and listening to them singing about wishes coming true. I was standing there crying while everyone laughed, because I knew that my wish was not coming true. I was fighting that knowledge, but it was still there. My son was not going to be staying with us; he’d be going on to glory. I hated that song in that moment.

In our dealings with others, we need to be prepared to recognize the nature of life and not to say or to imply that God will always solve every problem immediately and according to our preferences.

So what do I find is the most encouraging passage?

Job 38.

Yes, that one.

You see, I know that I’m darkening counsel by words without knowledge. I know that I’m pretty ignorant. I know that God knows much more.

Infinitely more.

But what it also tells me is that while I’m thinking I’m alone, while I’m thinking there is nothing left, God is there. God doesn’t promise that you will not have troubles, but God does promise to be there. I can get that.

God’s promises are quite valuable, but like everything else they need to be taken in context—in the context of life, in the context of the passage of scripture, and in the context of the overall story.

I have two friends who suffer from health issues that many of us would consider overwhelming. Both of them, to the contrary, see God working through their situation. Their prayer is not for healing, but for God to use them in the situation they’re in. I would imagine they would be happy if God decided to heal them at some point, but that is not their focus in life.

They have the promise that God will be with them no matter what the problem.

That is a message I can truly appreciate and appropriate.

(Featured image credit: Openclipart.org.)

Philippians 2:1-11, Romans 12, and the Nature of Christian Community

Philippians 2:1-11, Romans 12, and the Nature of Christian Community

That’s a fairly ambitious title I gave myself, but the content is a bit less ambitious.

When I found that I’d be teaching from Philippians 2 in Sunday School, I commented that if someone couldn’t teach a class from Philippians 2:5-11, they should just give up teaching. That’s probably a bit harsh, but the passage is certainly teachable.

One key element, that we sometimes don’t emphasize in all the theology, is the fact that the expression of the mission of Jesus is made in the context of a call to Christian community.

Each one shouldn’t look after his or her own interests, but for one another’s interests.

Philippians 2:4 (my translation)

This is tied to the giving of/by Christ through verse 5, which tells us that our minds are to work like his, as we give for others. This is interesting as we see that he has given up much more than we could possibly possess in order to take action for our salvation.

It’s impossible for us to conceive of giving that much; certainly never to actually give it.

A similar call comes in John 15:12 “love one another as I have loved you.” This may sound easy to some, but only if you allow some weak definition of love to replace the one Jesus is using. This is on the way to the cross. “As I have loved you” is not simple.

Yet we find ourselves constantly unable to love those who are different from us in any way whatsoever.

One way to look at and classify a community is to look at the purpose of it’s ties, those things that make it a community that can be identified. A community can gather together and love (or care for, or commit themselves to) one another because they are afraid of the outside world and want to keep it out, or they can commit themselves to the same sorts of values in order to reach out and include the rest of the world.

“Circling the wagons,” is common in westerns. Heaven help the person inside the circle who thought that those outside might be open to peace! Such a person is a traitor, even if they don’t intend to act on their own, because they question the very basis for the circled wagons. They question the reason for this temporary community’s existence.

A medical or dental mission team displays quite the opposite reason. Far from desiring to protect themselves against those they meet in a foreign country, they want to serve. They are bound together by the intent to serve and through the mission they wish to carry out. In this case, the one who wants to reach out to more people is welcomed. The traitor would be one who harms the ability of the team (temporary community) to carry out their mission.

Real communities function between those two poles. One needs identity in order to be of any sort of service. In the command of Jesus, the disciples are to be identified by the way in which they love one another. That makes it clear who is in the community and what the community does.

Then we have the community reaching out to others. Is this love inside the community the mission of that community? Do they bring in more people to love?

If they are to follow the example of Jesus, that must be what they do, because that is what Jesus did. He came to people (all humanity) who did not find him all that attractive. They’d rather have revenge on their enemies than love them. They weren’t ready for Jesus. We aren’t ready for Jesus.

If the community that forms around his principles becomes inward looking, and spends its time defending itself as a privileged community of people who are more right in a theological or even an ethical sense, they will fail to actually emulate their Lord.

Romans 12 points to this when Paul calls for application of these principles to enemies (12:20), to persecutors (12:14), to those who do evil (12:17).

There is another side, the side where we lose our identity. If we become the enemy in order to love the enemy we may lose our ability to help. This is why Christian love is so hard and so rarely attained.

I read a comment recently that we can’t expect our children to love other people if we constantly tell them those other people are wrong. Perhaps. But Christian love calls on us to love the people even when they’re wrong, because we know that God loves us, even when we’re wrong.

This is our identity and our witness, defined by the one we call Lord.

Is There Ever a Good Reason to Leave Your Church?

Is There Ever a Good Reason to Leave Your Church?

I was reading this article on the reasons people leave, titled 5 Rather Startling Reasons People Leave Your Church, and while it is by no means the worst offender, it reminded me of an interesting characteristic of church growth/health books and articles.

The problem is this: We, as leaders in the church, tend to assume that the leadership (of which we’re a part) is right, and the departing members are wrong.

I think that’s frequently not the case. I’ve discussed before my reasons for changing denominations. I grew up Seventh-day Adventist and am now a member of a United Methodist congregation. When I last changed church membership, I assumed it would not be to another United Methodist congregation. The accuracy of my assumption did not quite make it into “true” on the meter.

I actually agree with much of what this article says. Don’t get discouraged because someone leaves. People don’t always leave because you’re doing something wrong.

The inverse of the problem is this: We, as leaders in the church, tend in our darker moments to assume that the leadership (of which we’re a part) must be wrong because members are departing.

Neither of the two assumptions is correct.

So let me look at it from the point of view of the member. What is a good reason to leave your church?

Here, I think, there is a clear, but difficult answer. Ask yourself this: Am I leaving this church to answer a call of God to be somewhere else, or am I leaving it because of my own complaints?

I consider this a good question even if you’re complaining about inappropriate or just plain wrong teachings or policies in the church you’re leaving. The question is always: Where does God want me to be?

That question doesn’t have to be answered by a voice from heaven. It’s an application of wisdom. Where are you best able to serve God? Is God perhaps calling you to be a voice for reformation where you are? Is God looking for you to be a witness elsewhere? Are you needing to learn from someone?

I wouldn’t get too worried about it as long as you’re searching for the best way to serve. If you are looking for a way to get your own way, you’re going to be dissatisfied wherever you go.

Always be on the lookout for where God wants you. Follow that. It may be hard, but it will also be satisfying.

(Featured image credit: Openclipart.org.)

The Danger in Appealing to the Miraculous

The Danger in Appealing to the Miraculous

A friend’s post on Facebook got me thinking about this verse:

I said to them, “If anyone has items made of gold, bring them. And they gave them to me, and I threw them in the fire, and out came this calf.”

(Exodus 32:24, my translation from the LXX)

I can’t help but think that Aaron is hoping that a claim of miraculous activity will somehow justify his action. Moses wasn’t buying it, as his actions show.

We laugh, but how often to we make Aaron’s appeal?

Appeal to Blessings and Curses

In fact, I think we do this from both directions. If someone is blessed, we often say they must be following God’s will because look at all the blessings! On the other hand, if someone is suffering hardship, we say, “They must be doing God’s work, otherwise the devil wouldn’t be after them that way!”

Depending on how we feel about the people, we might just reverse those things. “Look at how their worldly behavior is resulting in increased worldly good! Must not be very spiritual with all that money!” Or, “If you were truly doing God’s will, you wouldn’t be having all those hardships.”

The Bible story presents many examples that stand in opposition, no matter which of these options you take. In preparing for my Sunday School lesson tomorrow, I read Isaiah 53, which is one of background passages:

He was despised, rejected by humanity,
Beaten, experiencing disease.
We turned and looked away from him,
We despised him and accounted him nothing.

Isaiah 53:3 (my translation)

Whether you apply this to Israel as God’s servant, or to the remnant of exiled Israel whom God would restore, or to Jesus as the suffering servant, it still refers to someone who is suffering, even though they are in the process of carrying out God’s plan.

In Philippians (chapter 2 was the reading, but I refer back to chapter 1 as well), we find Paul in prison. He is suffering. There are those who proclaim the gospel in a way intended to give him pain. It’s possible these were people who thought their view and presentation of the gospel was superior to Paul’s, and were using his suffering as a basis for asserting that superiority. Surely God would free Paul if his teaching was so good!

Yet in the key reading for today’s lesson, we have the note that Jesus did not consider equality with God something to be grasped or hung onto (Philippians 2:6), yet clearly it is not Paul’s intent to suggest Jesus, in giving up everything, was not following God’s plan.

The Case of Prophecy

In discussing prophecy, many make frequent reference to Deuteronomy 18:21-22. If a prophet makes a prediction and that word does not come true, God has not spoken. This test of a prophet is both simple and deadly.

Consider Jonah. He made a prediction, and that prediction did not come true. He was really annoyed, because he wanted Nineveh destroyed. I’m sure he was also annoyed, because now he was a false prophet.

Turn that around and think of the Ninevites. Suppose they have their version of Deuteronomy 18:21-22. They say, “Well, if he’s a true prophet, the city will be destroyed in 40 days and we can be certain.”

I call this the “dead test” for a prophet, because by the time you’ve completed your test and made a determination, you’re likely dead. Not an optimum strategy, I would say. Of course, if you’re not dead, find that prophet and a pile of rocks.

Too bad for Jonah.

Another Example: 1 Kings 22

In 1 Kings 22 we have a lovely story in which Jehoshaphat of Judah, by all accounts a good king, is visiting the king of Israel. While there, they get the idea to go to war. Jehoshaphat, good king that he was, wanted to consult the LORD. The king of Israel gets 400 prophets who tell the two kings to do what they want to do.

Jehoshaphat is not satisfied and looks for one more prophet. Micaiah is brought in, and he prophesies something quite different. The day isn’t going to go well. (You can get out your Bible and read the details.)

So if you’re one of the two kings, how do you make a decision? If Micaiah is prophesying falsely, you can ignore him, but by the time you know that, you will also have lost the battle. Not so helpful!

The Other Test

Deuteronomy has another test, however, and it’s an important one.

If prophets or those who divine by dreams appear among you and promise you omens or portents, and the omens or the portents declared by them take place, and they say, “Let us follow other gods” (whom you have not known) “and let us serve them,” you must not heed the words of those prophets or those who divine by dreams; for the LORD your God is testing you, to know whether you indeed love the LORD your God with all your heart and soul. The LORD your God you shall follow, him alone you shall fear, his commandments you shall keep, his voice you shall obey, him you shall serve, and to him you shall hold fast. But those prophets or those who divine by dreams shall be put to death for having spoken treason against the LORD your God—who brought you out of the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of slavery—to turn you from the way in which the LORD your God commanded you to walk. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.

Deuteronomy 13:1-5 (NRSV)

In this case your test is one that can be done immediately. Is this person telling us to worship other gods? I wonder if that was not the reason Jehoshaphat doubted the word of the 400 prophets. Unfortunately, even though he was wise enough to ask for one more prophet, he was apparently unwilling to go with the advice of the prophet he requested.

The Case of Gifts

I’ve seen this used in connection with spiritual gifts. People look for a manifestation of miraculous gifts, sometimes a specific gift, or one off of a list Paul provides. But Paul is never intending to provide exhaustive lists of the spiritual gifts. That’s why his lists don’t match. He’s just giving us examples. In each case, he’s providing a different test, not one that appeals to miraculous (or at least obviously miraculous) activity.

In 1 Corinthians 12, we are given a view of the real test in verses 4-7, as the example list is introduced. There are varieties of gifts, but one Spirit, one Lord, one God. It is by looking at the One in whose service the gifts are used that we can discern their nature.

No Simple Answer

Scripture doesn’t provide us with a single, simple answer. It leaves us with the task of discernment. Are your troubles due to the devil trying to stop your carrying out of God’s work, or are they God closing doors? Is your wealth God’s blessing in response to your following God’s will, or is it the devil rewarding a servant?

You find this out through prayer, thinking, discernment, study, and good counsel. The result may be miraculous!

(Theme image credit: Openclipart.org.)

Knowing About God or Knowing God

Knowing About God or Knowing God

In the dim reaches of time (no, no dinosaurs, not that long ago) I was attending college, and right during registration for my second year, I heard the call of God to study biblical languages. The call is another story, but whether it was God or not, the idea of studying the languages fit with my personality and preconceptions.

The most important thing was to get “it” right, and “it” was whatever God had revealed. For me, this meant the Bible, and so what I needed was to go back to the original texts, a task I thought possible in those days. I also hoped to be independent, not looking to any human being to tell me what God had said, but rather to have discovered this for myself. I also thought this was an attainable goal.

More fool me.

Avoiding Theology

In pursuit of this goal, I wanted to avoid the study of theology, because theology was separated from the Bible. Why study theologians when I could study the actual source? Why discuss theological ideas unless they were very directly rooted in the biblical text?

This attitude was based on my belief that God had provided a complete and final set of facts in the Bible, and that if I got these right, I would also be right with God. I had a certain amount of perfectionism in my make-up. I’d gone to a Christian school where papers were to be completed perfectly before a student went on. I’d memorized scripture there and then had to write it perfectly, including punctuation. That exercise complete, I had to record it, again perfectly.

I do not remember these things as chores. To me they seemed quite the proper way of going about one’s learning. Wrong wasn’t really an option. I was doubtless wrong many times, but I never believed I was wrong, so no problem!

Theologians, because they were arguing from theological premise to new conclusion, were certainly on the wrong track, because they would certainly never attain certainty. You needed to be absolutely right about God.

Certainty Evaporates in the Face of an Uncertain Text

I got pretty good with biblical languages, but I also had the bad taste to study textual criticism, and in that I discovered several things. First, I would never to absolutely certain of the biblical text. My textual criticism teacher made sure I understood that by having me create my own critical text based on the manuscript images available to me. Using a limited set of resources (this was before the internet and folks like CSNTM), I was unable to produce an absolutely certain text of half a dozen verses. Not even my determination was able to convince me that my goal of independently getting to the very root of scripture was attainable.

As I studied further into biblical criticism, I also found that even the idea of the original text was fraught with difficulties. Jeremiah comes in two versions. Daniel and Esther have additions. What would constitute the original text?

A Question of Goals

There are those who assume I left the church for a period of nearly 12 years because of these issues regarding the Bible. Many assume I went to a liberal seminary and was led astray. Neither of those things is true. I had plenty of teachers who tried to get me to get to know God, and most of my professors were quite conservative by any standard.

What happened to me was a failure to connect the data points I had about God with a knowledge of and experience of God. I knew a great deal about God. I knew God not at all. My worship life withered away in graduate school.

People told me what was going on. Lucille Knapp, who taught me Greek, would comment regularly about the literary beauty of passages. For graduation, she gave me a book of religious verse with a pointed suggestion that not everything was to be found in digging through the Greek. Alden Thompson, my advisor, regularly pointed to issues of devotion, of connecting to God and not just to stuff about God. In graduate school, my advisor Leona Running similarly pointed me to other things, while at the same time helping to satisfy my thirst for research about the data.

With the data in hand, I left the church. All churches.

In a post some months ago, Wanting to Be Right Theologically, I noted this pursuit of righteousness by correct theology. If we just get our beliefs right, we’ll be OK. But as important as our theology can be, this is just as much, or more of a burden than aiming work our way into favor with God. It doesn’t work.

Theology is important, but it’s importance is in the way it can help us relate to God, most importantly in realizing that letting God into our lives isn’t the end, but a new beginning.

Ramblings for the Coming Year

This is going to be my topic for a number of posts in the coming year.

I got started on making it a topic through working on the book by S. J. Hill, What’s God Really Like?: Unique Insights into His Fascinating Personality. As Stephen R. Crosby says in his endorsement of the book, “A robust theology of beauty is, and has been, conspicuously absent in much of western theology.”

Even when we get things technically right, when we realize that God’s grace is sufficient, we can end up with a dry faith, a boring faith, a rather sad faith. We can find ourselves saved by, and living by, the data. We can have a relationship with our theological beliefs, and not with the one we believe in.

I’m going to follow S. J. Hill’s book through, but I’m going to use many other books, primarily ones that I publish (I am a publisher, and this is what I do!), but also others. I can think off-hand of a range of books from my list, including most of our devotional category, that have helped to drive me in the direction of really enjoying God and seeing God as having a personality, and not just an entry in a theological dictionary. I’ll mention many of these books, but I’ll also be writing about my own experience and thinking and looking at the scriptures.

Join me in thinking about these things, and hopefully in experiencing a God of beauty.

I will be keeping books on a resource page here.

What Do I Do About Grace?

What Do I Do About Grace?

This question has come up a number of times in my Romans study group, and it’s a good one. I’m not one to call all questions good. In fact, I think if you ask the wrong question, you often end up with an answer that leads you astray.

In this case, however, we’ve gone from Romans 1 through 11, and we’ve been learning about God’s faithfulness and God’s grace. One class member commented that the answer to any question I ever asked should be “God’s grace is sufficient.” That’s not a bad answer. Sometimes, however, we need to go a bit further.

Paul’s going to do just that starting with Romans 12. Now some people write, teach, and preach as though Paul talks about theology and then makes a break with his theology in order to talk about action or ethics. I disagree. Paul makes clear in Romans 12 that he is building on what he has said before, and what he says is very well founded. We should read his “therefore” in 12:1 as tying this together.

Because God is faithful, because God has given us his grace, here is the result.

Using the Word “Law”

One of the critical elements in understanding Romans, which leads up to this point, is Paul’s usage of the word “law.” When I was in my late teens a person I respected greatly told me that the big mistake in reading Romans and Galatians was misunderstanding “law.” This person told me to understand it as “Torah,” i.e., the practice of Judaism. The issue of the law here was one of whether gentiles needed first to be Jews.

This is doubtless one of Paul’s points, but it is far from Paul’s whole point. That definition works better in much of Galatians, where requiring gentiles to practice Judaism, with the entry point of circumcision, is much more central. In Romans, Paul uses “law” in some different senses.

Our tendency here is to try to find out which one sense Paul is using and then apply it throughout, but this may not be the best approach. “Law” can have quite a sizable semantic range, including God’s divine law and purpose for all time, specific bodies of law, such as the Torah as a whole, or the instructions to Noah, or even specific commands. English usage of Law doesn’t quite extend to a body of broad instruction, but that is part of the range of Paul’s usage.

A Diagram

Here’s a diagram I provided to my class. I’m going to write a few notes about it. Obviously, this is abbreviated. We have spent months getting to this point with my Romans class.

I started to put all the notes and the text on the diagram, but that proved a bit too complex and confusing. So herewith a few notes.

God has made no plan ever that was not intended to produce a holy people. God has a glorious purpose for us, and reaching that purpose perfectly is the ultimate goal. We have, however, all fallen well short of that, and we continue to fall short. But God’s grace is sufficient.

There should be no balance between faith and works or grace and works, because these are different things and cannot be balanced. There is no amount of works that I can do that will force God’s hand or earn God’s favor. I like to use navigation by the pole star. Think of yourself orienting your journey by sighting Polaris. You do not believe you’re going to get to Polaris by walking in that direction, but you do believe that you’ll get to another destination. The fact that you cannot reach it doesn’t make it less of a guide for what you can reach. (You can find my calculations on the north star here, along with much other verbage!)

The key here is the invitation of grace, the invitation to be “in Christ,” in which we allow God to work on us and change us, but we cease judging ourselves or others according to the ultimate perfection of a goal we cannot possibly attain.

Idolatry

The short line at the bottom left deals with idolatry. The true problem with idolatry is that it places something less than God in the place of God. That can be our own desire to attain, to be in control. We like to be in control. We feel safer if we can say that God will take us to heaven because we have completed a list of chores. But that’s placing something less than God in God’s place.

Similarly, we can place something less than God’s perfect law in the place of God’s law. (My friend Pat Badstibner has written about this in The Law Is Not Soggy Corn Flakes.) I use Paul Tillich’s terminology to some extent, that idolatry is making something not ultimate your ultimate concern. So we have those who decide that this perfection thing being unattainable, we need to find something attainable and do that.

Doing the attainable with God (see Philippians 2:12-13 and John 15:1-8) is just fine. God knows where he can take you, and through sanctifying grace will guide you there. (Here’s where I depart from Wesley’s plan. I don’t believe in Christian perfection. I believe that is only accomplished with glorification. It should be made clear, however, that the perfection Wesley spoke about was not the attainment of all of God’s glorious purpose for us either.)

We start to step into idolatry when we start to trim God’s standards so that they look better to us. By this, again, I don’t mean looking at attainable goals. In fact, that is precisely what God has done with us. I show this in my diagram by the lines representing God’s commands and laws for times and circumstances.

God’s goal is always the same, but God works this out in many different ways in various times and places.

God’s Grace Is the Context

On the right I put the long red line that represents God’s grace. That is the one and only thing that connects us to an infinite God. Only God can cross that gap.

Let me apply this now to the particular question that came up in class multiple times. What do we do about sin in our midst? Do we forgive, excuse, confront, ignore?

And here is where we need to watch out. Matthew 7:1 is, I think, one of the most misunderstood and simultaneously disobeyed passages of scripture. It’s an important command. We also have Matthew 7:15ff regarding watching out for false prophets and knowing them by their fruit. Is this latter not an act of judgment?

I would say that we have to regularly inspect fruit and make decisions based on that. We might have to choose between one person and another to lead the children’s ministry. We might have to decide whether a pastor or teacher is acting as a false prophet. Those would be acts of judgment in one sense.

Guidance

The guidance I see in my chart is simply this: We also judge and inspect fruit in the light of the law and the laws.

First, we understand ourselves to be the objects of infinite grace. We are, ourselves, sinners, in need of God’s grace and action. I realize many find this hard to accept, but I see it in the context of broader reality. I am so pitiful that without God’s creative power I would not exist at all. Thus saying I need God in order to do good is a minor derivative. From that flows the idea that all depends on God.

Second, as recipients of God’s grace, we know that God is working in us and through us and that we are witnesses to the working of God’s grace. I often tell Christian audiences that there’s no question whether you will witness. The question is whether you will be a good witness or a bad one.

Thus we conduct all our fruit inspection in the context of the knowledge that we are recipients of God’s infinite grace, and not as superior people looking down upon lesser mortals. That position is left to God.

So how does that help one decide whether to confront or remain quiet?

Simply this: It sets the context. What is right becomes the question of what is the right thing to do as a recipient of God’s grace. Proverbs 26:4-5 provides a similar issue. Read it and then ask yourself the question. If I find a fool speaking, which should I do? Listen to the Holy Spirit and decide in the context of grace.

All to God’s Glory

As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10:31, “Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all things to God’s glory.” So ask, “Am I doing this for God’s glory, or am I doing it to justify myself or even glorify myself?” and “Is this done as an act of grace, or an act of condemnation?”