Tag Archives: Bible

Fingers Crossed

Why I am a Christian hypocrite (Part 2)

Last week, I wrote about how I don’t live up to the standards of scripture. There’s a case to be made that this brands me as a Christian hypocrite, but in another sense it is not too surprising. Scripture itself even says, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

But what about the standards I set for myself, aka “my rules“? If I can’t even live up to those, what kind of tension does that create in my life? And how can I focus on helping others if I can’t even help myself?

Rules

My coworker grew up outside the church, but in a community with a heavy, legalistic religious presence. He has a joke about his churchgoing friends from back home: “If I go fishing with them, I have to bring two. If I only bring one, he’ll drink all my beer.”

So many of us “religious” types seem to have rules that we follow when it’s for show but privately ignore, or behavior that openly contradicts our stated values. From Newt Gingrich to Josh Duggar, the revelations have become so unsurprising that, to many hearers, any position on morality sounds like hypocrisy the moment it leaves our mouths.

My life is no different. Those who know me know that I have struggled with unhealthy attitudes towards sex and relationships for much of my life. Yet the  energy (to put it kindly) and obsession (to put it less so) I invested had only led me down a path of grinding loneliness and depression, and so the idea that all of that didn’t have to be my raison d’être was a revelation and a big part of what initially attracted me to Christian faith.

Tension

In some ways, then, my Christian practice outwardly looks a lot like legalism. Take, let’s say, “adult media”. I’ve been damaged by dependence upon it, and one of my first acts as a Christian was to rid myself of it. Since then, you’ve seen me: I’m legalistic, flipping the Victoria’s Secret catalog face-down and closing my eyes during the nude scenes in movies. What you don’t see is: I’m only trying not to put that stuff in my brain any more. I don’t like where it leads me or how quickly it happens.

But it’s way easier to be true to all of that when I’m accountable, that is, when people are watching. Kinda sounds like, “when it’s for show”. Any recovering addict will tell you, it gets exponentially harder when we’re alone. Scripture anticipates this: we can help each other up, one person can sharpen another, we can spur each other on toward love and good deeds.

The salient points here are:

  • I’m not doing the “legalistic” things I do for show or to prove I’m “holier than thou”. I’m doing them for the sake of my life and my emotional health.
  • During those times when I have had a relapse, it’s always been “in secret”.  At those times, what I say & believe are diametrically opposite what I do, which is the textbook definition of hypocrisy.
Focus

This kind of hypocrisy is as old as Christianity itself, going back at least to the Apostle Paul:

I don’t understand my own behavior. What I want to do, I don’t do; instead, what I hate is I do… What a wretched man I am! (Romans 7:15-24)

So given all this, it’s a very valid question, again: does Christian faith still have any value? If the point of it all were to have rules and follow them, I might well feel that the answer was “No.” But that is the exact opposite of the point.

Before Christ, they had rules. If the point now was just to still have rules, then the coming of Christ was just a waste of a trip. Rather, says scripture, the point now is to set us free from all of those rules. And yet, Christ himself followed all the rules. What is going on here??

The answer is a matter of focus. Is my focus on me or on “them”?

To me, what keeps my admitted hypocrisy from negating my faith is, I’m not here to lecture you. I’m not here to tell you that God hates you because what you are doing is “sin”. I’m not even here to tell you that what’s destructive in your life is the same as in mine. It’s probably not.

I really don’t know what to tell you about the many folks in our society who want to stand up in the name of Christ and tell you different. The best I can offer you is, I’ll come gently alongside you and help with you burdens. I would love it if you would do the same for me. Let’s treat each other with kindness and help one another in the ordinary sense of the word. In this way, says scripture—hypocrisy or not, criticism or not, legalism or not— we are each doing everything that Christ requires.

Outdated Bible

Is it time to give up on our outdated Bible?

The number one complaint about the Bible is, it’s outdated. It’s the only ancient writing any of us read with regularity. Some assert that, despite the millennia, all of it applies directly to us with no interpretation; others feel that in modern times it has become useless, if not harmful. Ironically, some even insist on both: more than once, an atheist has argued I must hold Bible to such a high standard that it cannot measure up and must be rejected, and even to attempt understanding by ordinary scholarship is “cheating”.

In fact, whatever we believe about the divine inspiration of the Bible, the reality is that it was set down by particular people in particular places, in their own languages and for their own cultures. We must take account of the original worldview if we are to ever understand what it meant to the original audience. Once we can do that, we have hope of understanding what it is supposed to mean to us.

Outdated

It is objectively true that the Bible is “outdated” in the same way that the plays of Shakespeare are outdated: our language and our worldview have changed since they were written.

Consider a phrase like, “When he himself might his quietus make with a bare bodkin, who would fardels bear?” Few would claim it is “cheating” to seek the meaning of such a phrase in the everyday speech of Shakespeare’s time, and then to take that as the intended meaning. This is done through study of his culture. We cannot understand Shakespeare without some understanding of Elizabethan England. The same is true of the Bible. No one now living has the same language and worldview as the original authors.

Even when a good translation renders the Bible into familiar language, the cultural distance remains, and attempts to take its meaning directly from our cultural perspective are likely to lead us astray. Again, consider other “outdated” works:

  • Shakespeare’s Henry V has several of his former close friends summarily executed; did Shakespeare intend us to take him as a murderous tyrant?
  • Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn uses “the N-word”; does that mean he hated black people?

In fact, Shakespeare intends Henry V as a wise and benevolent king, and Huckleberry Finn was a revolutionary in its advocacy for friendship-as-equals between black and white. Correct understanding of the authors’ intents is only available when we compare what happened to what the original audience would have expected.

For better or for worse, correct understanding of the Bible is rooted in some knowledge of Palestinian culture during the first and second millennia BCE. The question then becomes, why then and there? Why not here and now, and save us all the trouble of scriptural exegesis? And, since scripture was revealed then, does that reflect a divine endorsement of their particular culture? Or is “ancient Palestine” simply a lingua franca shared by all Christians throughout time and space?

Lingua franca

My (English-speaking) parents were chemistry majors, so they had to learn German. Meanwhile, many German-speaking pilots were learning English to talk to air traffic control. At one time, French was the language of diplomacy, and to this day, all passports worldwide (even yours) include French. And Latin, for many years, was the common language of scholarship, which is why the term for “common language”, lingua franca, is in Latin.

How do these languages get chosen?  Is it because they are intrinsically suited to the purpose? Not at all. It’s more or less random. Chemists wound up with German because the Beilstein Handbook is in German. French for diplomacy goes back to Napoleon. English for flight goes back to the Wright brothers.

So. In the same way that understanding the Beilstein Handbook requires knowledge of German, understanding the New Testament requires knowledge of 1st Century Palestinian culture. It is simply a shared reference point, not a divine endorsement. Jesus worked hard to change many aspects of their culture, just as I’m sure he would do with ours.

But this gets to the question of “ours”. Why shouldn’t God update the Bible to “our” culture? The question is profoundly narcissistic. What is “our” culture? Since January 1, 2016, even this humble blog has been read in the US, Canada, the UK, France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Sweden, Russia, Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa, India, Thailand, the Philippines, Australia, and New Zealand. Which culture should God “update” the Bible to? Should he go pre-or-post microwave ovens, or VCRs, or automobiles, or the Internet?

Doing the work

The Bible is— yes— tied to specific times and places. But in so being, it is timeless. 21st Century Americans can look back and understand if they will take the trouble, just like we could in the 20th Century and in every century before that, and just like they can in Brazil and Iraq and China.

No matter our country, no matter our beliefs, there are parts of the Bible we embrace easily and parts that challenge us, and depending who we are, they are going to be different parts. I think that’s the point: no matter the standards we set for ourselves, we all fall short in some way, and God’s standards are no exception.

There is the fundamental core of the Gospel message, and then there is everything else. We have to interpret, based on culture, if we have any hope of figuring out which is which. We cannot separate “understanding the Bible” from “understanding the original intent”. The Bible can never mean what it was never intended to mean.

 

P.S. My 10-year-old daughter and her cousin got a glimpse of this blog during our visit. I think they said it best in a lot fewer words: “No,  I feel that we should keep the Bible. Many parts of the Bible are not meant to relate directly to our situations; instead, they provide motions towards the right directions for us.”

Overdoing it with food

God in the food, or, forgetting to save your life

Food represents a gigantic fraction of Biblical teaching, yet in 19 years of weekly church attendance, I have never once heard a sermon on it. In a time when unhealthy food choices are literally a public health epidemic— when celebrities from Michael Pollan to Jamie Oliver have made their careers warning about the dietary dangers— why do the Biblical teachings on the subject seem all but forgotten? And, what does the original “diet book” have to say that is still relevant in our time?

The power of food

In December, I signed on for a 21 Day Sugar Detox with a group of old friends. The day before it started, our church made a plug for 21 days of prayer and fasting. Whether it was a God-wink or just good timing, I decided my detox could do double duty. I posted in my friends’ private Facebook group, asking if anyone else was thinking of the emotional/spiritual benefits of the cleanse. At the time no one was, but then we got into it. Suddenly there were multiple posts about powerful emotions unexpectedly unleashed. What was happening?

Anyone who has ever struggled with food addiction will tell you: what fuels the addiction is not the taste of the food or the feeling of being full. Rather, like any addiction, it is the emotional attachment. It’s psychological self-medication. I would argue that food has this power because what we eat is inherently emotional. A New York Times editorial about sugar summed it up: “We mean addictive, literally, in the same way as drugs. And the food industry is doing everything it can to keep us hooked.”

Meant to be our servant, food has, for many, become our master. Even Adam & Eve’s original sin, leading to slavery, was an act of audacity regarding food.

A greater power

When anything gains mastery over us, the world (and our own instincts!) urge us to “try harder” or “resist temptation”. By contrast, the tonic of scripture is humilitysubmission, and grace. Scripture talks often about breaking the power of that which holds us captive, so that God’s redemption can begin to work in us, to restore us to wholeness, but our own efforts are not the most important element in that.

Indeed, in the case of food, stringent self-denial (basically, unhealthy fasting) is a symptom of the disease. The Bible often talks about fasting, but it is always in the context of turning us outside of ourselves (toward God), not as some sort of “will to power” self-actualization.

The larger point is that we, as human beings, have a higher calling than hedonistic self enjoyment.

  • For life is more than food, and the body more than clothes. (Luke 12:23)
  • Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction. (Galatians 6:8)
  • You have lived luxuriously on the earth and led a life of wanton pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. (James 5:5)

So much of our “foodie” culture nowadays is focused on our own experience. But if our lives are nothing more than seeking our own pleasure— a pleasure that is inescapably bounded by our own mortality— then ultimately, they are nothing at all.

Refugees: boy on street

Guns, flowers, refugees… and why I am not afraid

You’ve probably seen it by now. A little boy and his dad are being interviewed about the recent attacks in Paris. He wants to move away to escape the terrorists who, he explains, have guns, prompting this (excerpted) exchange:

  • They have guns but we have flowers.
  • But flowers don’t do anything!
  • Of course they do. Look, everyone is putting flowers. It’s to fight against the guns.
  • It’s to protect?
  • Exactly. Do you feel better now?
  • Yes… I feel better.

Is this exchange inspiring or hopelessly naïve? Is the father simply lying to provide an illusion of safety, or does he have some kind of valid point? The questions of safety and danger are on everybody’s minds right now, especially as we in the U.S. weigh whether to participate in the sheltering of refugees fleeing from ISIS. What does the Bible have to say?

Illusion of safety

The little boy in this video has a tragically valid concern: getting shot. The father gives him a soothing answer, but is there a better answer? Something he could say or do to actually assure his son’s safety? Of course not.

We all want to feel safe, but we live in an unsafe world. If the little boy feels better because he has a flower, an adult perspective recognizes that as just a calming illusion. But we all are clinging to calming illusions. Some places in the world are more violent, some less so, and it is worth working to reduce violence, but also remember that, if you’re reading this, you live someplace with enough violence to worry about and it’s going to be that way for a while. The father could have said, “We have guns too and we’re going to keep you safe,” but we have more guns in the U.S. than any other developed country and violence still exists here. So as we advocate for our particular solutions, we must also figure out how to keep getting out of bed in the morning even if violence is never solved, and that is where the flowers come in.

How “the flowers” fight

From “love your enemies” to “do not resist one who is evil” to “all who draw the sword will die by the sword“, Christ’s response to violence is nonviolence and submission. There is no exception for us; we are commanded to take up the cross as well.

The whole point of forgiveness and love is that it takes the power away from the terrorists. It is not the result of stupidity, ignorance, or naïveté. There are other words for facing danger without fear. They are words like bravery, self-sacrifice, heroism… the firefighters did not rush into the World Trades on 9/11 because they were unaware of the danger.

Where, then, should we stand when there is a choice between heroism and danger? If we can save some innocent lives, should we not be willing to risk even our own lives to do so? Up to now, the whole argument on accepting refugees has been, “Is it dangerous or isn’t it?” To me, both arguments are nonsense. Resisting evil is always dangerous.

Into danger, unafraid

It was dangerous to operate the Underground Railroad. It was dangerous to confront Apartheid. It was dangerous to shelter Tutsis during the Rwandan genocide, to inscribe the names on Schindler’s List, to harbor the family of Anne Frank. It was dangerous for Christ to go into Jerusalem. All of those people walked into danger with their eyes open. Many of them paid with their lives. I don’t think any of them had regrets.

The dustbins of history are littered with the names of those who chose their own prosaic safety rather than stand up to a monstrous evil. When we consign the innocent to their fate in Syria, we number ourselves among them. We buy our illusion of safety at the price of our humanity. Because the reality is, we are no safer for our refusal to help the victims. We are in constant danger regardless.

When attacks come, if we are marked to die, we should at least be buried in hallowed ground. We should cry out our defiance. We should plant flowers on the graves of our fears.

We should shelter the refugees.

We are still, above all, the home of the brave.

Other recommended posts:

Photo credit: Bengin Ahmad / Foter.com /CC BY-ND

lightning-question2-604x270

Doesn’t God have to do what you say when you pray?

Prayer gets a bad rap. Consider:

  • “They couldn’t be bothered to get him the help he needed. Instead they swept it under the rug and ‘prayed.'” (an op-ed piece about Josh Duggar)
  • “It is easy to prove to yourself that God is imaginary. The evidence is all around you. Here are 50 simple proofs. #1: Try praying.” (homepage of the atheist website “God Is Imaginary”)
  • “Why don’t YOU try ‘not praying‘.  Just for a change, get off your knees and do something useful.” (a list of atheist responses to things Christians say)

So to hear these voices tell it, prayer is at best a misguided waste of time; at worst, a supplanter of real action and a proof that Christian teaching is false. Are they right?

This week I prayed for those in the path of Hurricane Patricia, which had been the strongest storm ever measured but which (thankfully) weakened markedly before making landfall. Some Christians would say my prayers helped, but even I am not sure of that. You see, even among Christians, there are widely divergent views on how to pray, why to pray, and what to expect when we pray. If you want a polarizing issue, look no further than prayer.

What prayer isn’t

If you believe that the Bible teaches we can make God do what we want by means of prayer, you are going to be disappointed. Millions— Christians and atheists alike— insist this is exactly what the Bible teaches, and point to a collection of about a half-dozen verses that (viewed in isolation) support the claim. The four most clear-cut are Matthew 18:19, Matthew 21:21, Mark 11:24, and John 14:13-14, the “ask me anything!” verses. Reading the entire rest of the Bible, however, it pretty quickly becomes clear that there is more to it than that.

We know about the scriptures emphasizing the importance of faith,  motiverighteousness, OK— but what about the sincere believer asking from the heart? Even in their case, scripture often records that they don’t get their way. King David, the “man after God’s own heart“, pleads for the life of his child, but his child dies. Christ’s disciples attempt to cast out a demon, but cannot. Hebrews 11 gives a roll call of heroes of the faith, yet says, “Not one of them received what had been promised.” Even Jesus himself, in the garden of Gethsemane, asks to be delivered of the cross, and then is crucified.

What is going on here? Simply put: evil happens, and God has his own ideas about how to deal with it. The four most important words on prayer in the Bible are found in 1 John 5:14: “If we ask anything according to his will, he hears us (emphasis added).” Basically, a request that flatly contradicts God’s nature is a non-starter, but even in the case of the good ones, he may have other plans.

What prayer is

All of this raises valid questions: if the Bible’s overall message is that God does whatever he wants, then why include verses like, “You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it?” And if the only requests that God will grant are those already “according to his will” anyway, then why make us ask at all?

Ask me anything

To those who assert that the “ask me anything” verses, if true, can only describe a God who must fulfill any and every request, I would say: watch Ratatouille. In that movie, the preeminent critic, Ego, is like one of these scoffers, ridiculing chef Gusteau’s motto “Anyone can cook!” as though the only possible meaning is that anyone who reads a cookbook can become a world-class chef. In the climactic scene, however, Ego’s worldview is profoundly changed, and he reflects, “…but I realize, only now do I truly understand what he meant. Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.”

It is just the same with the “ask me anything” verses. The prevailing focus of prayer in Jesus’ time was on blessing the Lord:

These blessings have God at their center. They contain no personal pronouns — focusing utterly on him, and not on the person praying. They are simply statements that praise God for his goodness.

Against this backdrop, the “ask me anything” verses fall into their proper place, not as counter-Biblical guarantees that God is our lap dog, but as heartfelt encouragements to break out of a too-narrow view: don’t just ask for what is “pious”, don’t just ask for what is “worthy”, it’s OK… ask me anything!

Everything your heart desiresSpeaking as a parent, my kids are not always inclined to good communication. As a teenager, my son in particular tended to assume we would say no, so he didn’t even ask, often to his great detriment and ours. We used to beg him to actually speak with us, rather than be limited by his imagination of us.  If a teenager can so badly misunderstand parents who daily occupy the same physical space, how much more is regular, unrestricted prayer a vital element in our understanding of God?

Why ask?

Next year, my daughter will be in middle school. Many of her friends have an allowance, but she doesn’t. We’d be happy to give her one— the granting of an allowance is “according to our will”— but she’s never asked. An allowance is a responsibility, and asking us will be one sign that she is ready to take that responsibility seriously. In the meantime, we’re perfectly happy to wait.

The Bible attributes this same mindset to God: “Until now you have asked for nothing in my name.” “You do not have because you do not ask God.” “Ask and ye shall receive.” I have heard these verses described as “God on a power trip”, “God wanting to humiliate us by making us bow and scrape”, “God playing mind games.” None of that makes any sense to me as a parent myself.

It is my belief that prayer is a vital and valuable part of the Christian life. If we don’t get everything we ask for, it doesn’t mean that “the Bible is wrong” or that “our faith isn’t strong enough”. It simply means that relationship with God is like any other relationship. Prayer is important because it is the cornerstone of that relationship. It is how we phone home to our father. It is transformative for us personally. It is so much more than us expecting God to do what we want.

Resisting the unfairness of God

Learning to enjoy the massive unfairness of God

The gospel message has a problem. Always has had. Here it is: a lot of the very people who embrace it most whole-heartedly seem like they don’t really like it.

At its core, the Christian message— the “good news”— is intended for all of life’s “outsiders”: you are welcome too! So how have we gotten into the “us” vs. “them” mindset— insiders vs. outsiders— so often encountered in relations between Christians and non-Christians today? One factor, found in scripture, is that some believers can find themselves offended by the “unworthiness” of those still “in sin”— the unfairness of claiming that God’s love is for “them” as much as “us”.

Biblical Examples

Believers have never liked the breadth of God’s grace; it goes way back before Christ. Jonah is a classic example. Forget  the whale; the real story is about the prophet called to preach to people he considers undeserving. He would literally rather be thrown in the ocean to drown. Spoiler alert: when the whole city of Nineveh finally turns to God as a result of his preaching, Jonah is furious at God for showing mercy toward “them”.

Several of Christ’s parables address the same point:

  • In the prodigal son, one of the bible’s great portraits of redemption, an inescapable feature is the anger of the righteous elder brother.
  • In the vineyard laborers, the hard-working laborers grumble against the master for over-kindness; he responds, “Do you begrudge my generosity?”
Alive & Well Today

A recent study showed that atheists are nearly the least trusted group in America, ahead of only convicted criminals. Discussing the article on reddit, many posters used scripture to vociferously defend that scornful attitude. The only scripture I could think of, as I read their harsh, condemning remarks, was Romans 2:1: “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else. At whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you do the very same things.”

In today’s culture wars, so much of our focus seems to be on detachment. If we can demonstrate from scripture that someone else’s behavior qualifies as a “sin”, we feel we have justified any possible range of responses without need for further reflection. But viewed in the lights of scripture, our responses may be more troubling to God— more “sinful”— than the sin that provided the justification in the first place.

If you see anyone as “enemies of Christ”, go among them, befriend them, do good to them. That’s what Jesus did for us when we were all his enemies.

We may quote Psalm 14:1 to justify our condemnation of an atheist, but can’t we, surely, keep reading for just two verses more to see that our own shortcomings are every bit as offensive? “The Lord looks down from heaven on the children of man… there is none who does good, not even one.” You would have to change the scripture if you wanted it to read as an indictment of atheists only. We quote scripture to call another of God’s creatures “a fool”, but in so doing, in the eyes of God, we have literally used a word, and committed an act, that Christ said was no better than murder.

A Christlike Response

It is impossible to imagine that we are more aware of, or troubled by, the world’s sin than was Christ himself. So why do we feel we can justify responses so much more stringent than his? Christ’s separation from sin manifested in his own personal obedience, not in aloofness from others less pure. It was an article of faith among First Century pharisees that intermingling with sinners was tantamount to approval of their sin and rejection of God’s law. Christ’s free intermingling with “sinners” on non-hostile terms was consistently seen by the pharisees as scandalous (see here and here and here and here, for example). Why, then, does our behavior towards the sinful of our own day resemble their attitude so much more strongly than his?

In response to the problem of error and doubt and malice, Christ came near. Into a world where “none does good, not even one,” Christ boldly came and lived and called himself by the name “son of man”. To the heavenly ear, I imagine that sounded as discordant as a pastor unapologetically proclaiming himself as “son of harlots” or “son of drug-dealers”. The words of scripture abound with tenderness for those we reject as “lost” or “fallen” or “disgraced”: “feed my lambs“, “restore them gently“, “repent and live!

If you see anyone as “enemies of Christ”, go among them, befriend them, do good to them. That’s what Jesus did for us when we were all his enemies.

Surviving years alone

Surviving years alone with God and “Into The Woods”

Growing up, some kids wanted to be firefighters or doctors or zookeepers; all I wanted was to have my own family. As a 14-year-old freshman, I made my plan: date in high school, date seriously in college, marry right after graduation, five years just us, first child at 28. But there was a snag you see: no one would go out with me. Contrary to my plan, I had zero girlfriends in high school, then zero in college. My first serious relationship, at age 23, ended after two months when she cheated on me and then dumped me.

As the years wore on, my timeline completely blown, sometimes people talked to me about the so-called “gift of singleness”. Sometime I raged against God. In the end, though, I finally figured it out. If that is you today— waking up every day praying, hopeful; going to bed every night exhausted, discouraged, alone yet again— I am here to tell you that there is an answer, there is hope, there is a way through. You can find it too.

Not having the “gift of singleness”

In Christianese, we have a term— “the gift of singleness”— which imagines a person, spiritually equipped for happiness through focus solely on God and his kingdom, unburdened by the need for significant human relationship. Let’s just say: as a person with a deep heart craving for marriage, that term was often a source of pain to me.

For one thing, like many pieces of supposedly “Christian wisdom”, it’s unbiblical. The closest you find is Paul’s encouragement to “remain as I am“, which is simply advice, unrelated to any sort of spiritual gifting. In the “gift of singleness” concept, there’s the slightly smug implication that love, marriage, and relationship are for those who couldn’t make the “A” grade of God’s sufficiency. In fact, while Paul does talk about the advantages of the single life, those who desire marriage have nothing to apologize for when it comes to scripture:

  • “He who finds a wife finds what is good and receives favor from the Lord.” (Proverbs 18:22)
  • “The Lord God said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.'” (Genesis 2:18)
  • “Two are better than one…” (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12)
Raging against God

It’s easy to talk about the years going by, but it’s really the days that will get you. In our society, there is so much promise of quick-and-casual relationship that it is easy to wake up every morning thinking that, by nightfall, maybe my situation will have completely changed for the better. By tonight, maybe somebody will love me. And days keep going by like that, one after another after another, for thousands of days in a row. Proverbs says, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick,” and that is how I felt.

I kept watching other people have what I wanted, and it just started to seem vindictive and personal. I began to get so angry at God, and I often prayed the words of Psalm 44: “But now you have rejected and humbled us; you sold your people for a pittance, gaining nothing from their sale.”

During all of this, my lifeline was music. Sometimes it was Jewel’s “You Were Meant for Me“. Sometimes it was Alanis Morissette. In particular, almost every day, I replayed a song from Stephen Sondheim’s Into The Woods called “No More”**:

No more giants, waging war.
Can’t we just pursue our lives, with our children and our wives?
‘Til that happy day arrives, how do you ignore
All the witches, all the curses,
All the wolves, all the lies, the false hopes, the good-byes, the reverses…
All the wondering what even worse is still in store!
All the children.
All the giants.
No more.

** (They left it out of the recent movie version; I was devastated.)

I had a mid-life crisis when I hit age 25 still single— a “quarter century” felt so old— and my biggest question was, “Can I survive this?” The music helped me know that someone else had felt what I faced, and had found a way through to the other side.

Making Peace with God

In prayer as in life, you may often feel there’s no answer if the only answers that “count” are the ones you’ve already decided on

At age 28, I finally thought I had met “The One”. But, after nine months, it fell apart just like all the others, and I finally said, “I give up.” By now, I was supposed to have a over decade of learning how to love. By now, we were supposed to be starting a family. I had tried everything I knew, I had prayed every prayer I could think of, and nothing was making it happen. And for the first time in my life, I had to face the question, “What if this doesn’t happen?” For the first time in my life, I starting looking for outside help. I became willing to adjust my perspective instead of insisting that the world adjust my situation.

I went through a year of therapy, and two years of a twelve-step recovery program for what is called, “SLA” (sex/love addiction). I realized that, in prayer as in life, you may often feel there’s no answer if the only answers that “count” are the ones you’ve already decided on. As in the line from The King’s Speech, if you’re waiting for God to comply with your instructions, “you will wait a long wait.”

All along, I had felt like nothing was working, because to me, “working” meant “making God hurry up.” But the truth is that God will do what God is going to do. That insight is embedded in the very name of God. So if God has a spouse for me out there somewhere, he will bring her into my life if and when it suits him. The only point at which I had any control over the situation was: how to redeem the time until then.

For the first time, I began allowing people to meet some of my needs without insisting they meet them all. I started to think, “What do I enjoy? Why don’t I do that?” I did a triathlon. I started writing. I began volunteering with kids at church. I became a big brother. I quit my job and spent a year teaching dance lessons.

By age 33, I finally started to feel like I had it figured out. I was letting myself enjoy my life for the first time, accepting what was instead of pining for what was not. I was happy. I found peace.

That year I met my wife; we’ve been married 10 years now. Could I have met her earlier? Sure. But would I ever have had those experiences, and learned those lessons? Would I ever have become the man God intended me to be? I’m pretty sure the answer, to all of the above, is “no”.

Religious freedom: if scripture is a weapon, then whom are we killing?

Religious freedom: if scripture is a weapon, then whom are we killing?

Picture this: I’m getting up to preach, and I’ve brought my Glock 9. Right up into the church where everyone can see. And then I’ll explain: I’ve got a deadly weapon here. But look! I checked that the magazine is empty. I checked: there’s no cartridge in the chamber. The safety is on, and there’s a trigger lock. And on top of all that, I’m only pointing it at the ground. Why am I being so careful? Any one of these precautions by itself is enough to make the gun safe… why on God’s green earth should I need to use them all? Because there is nobody here that I want to kill. Because when it’s a deadly weapon, a tiny mistake can have life-shattering consequences.

Now I want to talk about something far more powerful, far more deadly, far more destructive, and yet the precautions that people take with it are terrifyingly few; the casual, careless way that people wield it is terrifyingly common.

The bible often describes itself as a weapon:

  • “Before I was born the Lord called me; He made my mouth like a sharpened sword.” Isaiah 49:1-2
  • “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword.” Hebrews 4:12
  • “Take the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” Ephesians 6:17

…Something far more powerful, far more deadly, far more destructive, and yet the precautions that people take with it in the name of religious freedom are terrifyingly few

Too many people read language like this as an invitation to get out there and damage people in the name of Jesus. What else, after all, is a deadly weapon for? “Sinners”, those “in darkness”, the “unsaved”… all are dispatched with the casual indifference of target practice. This is what’s really behind all the current hub bub over religious freedom in Indiana. The words of scripture hold incredible power, but if used carelessly, we can suddenly find that we are blowing holes in the heads of beloved children that Christ died to save.

In so doing, we may find we have even turned the gun on ourselves. Not for nothing does scripture call itself a two-edged sword. The Pharisees’ command of scripture has never been surpassed, before or since, and the result, Christ said: “You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter.” (Matthew 23:13) The mishandling of that fearsome power destroyed themselves and others.

Whom, then, are we to attack? On whom are we to unleash the weapon of scripture, if not the miserable unrepentant sinner? Scripture couldn’t be clearer: it’s a hostage situation. The “sinners” flocked to Christ and the demons were panic-stricken: he was there to rescue the one from the other. The only battle God intends is against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms (Ephesians 6:12). By your love and joy and peace and all the rest of it– what Christ calls hearing his words and putting them into practice– if you can spring one of their victims, there’s a gigantic party in heaven every time. Any battle you pick with flesh and blood, you are only shooting the hostages.

God fixing our world

The 3 best options for God fixing our world (hint: none of them will work)

I recently had a discussion with some non-believer friends about the question of faith, and the major point under discussion was basically, “What is God’s problem?” That is to say, if God exists, why all the mystery, and why require us to have “faith”, which scripture defines as “being sure of what we hope for, and certain of what we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1)? Think of all the strife and division and error that could be eliminated if God would just come down and reveal himself… it would be God fixing our world.

As a bible-believing Christian, it got me thinking. What could God do? That is, if God were going to “come down and reveal himself”, what are his options? In broad terms, he could either do a one-time thing or an on-going thing.

If God were going to “come down and reveal himself”, what are his options?

But in the end, a one-time thing would inevitably fall into the same category as all the revelations already recorded in the bible– it would become a matter of history and, over the course of centuries or millennia, would become debatable. All the historical documents that attest to it would become “religious texts”, and therefore to some people, unreliable, especially if (for convenience), later publishers began adding them into the same volume as our existing collection of “religious texts”, which is known as the bible.

On the other hand, if God did an on-going thing, then that would quickly come to be viewed as part of our universe’s natural operation. Christians often cite the many seemingly miraculous aspects of the universe as it is, but all of them have been described and natural laws have been created to model them, and therefore they are all part of nature. If you fundamentally reject the possibility that God created nature, then anything on-going he does is not to his glory, but rather to the glory of the natural universe.

There is one final possibility, which is that he could live in on-going first-person relationship with humanity, like in the Garden of Eden, but according to the bible, that’s been tried and it didn’t work out. Even under those circumstance, people just couldn’t buy that God really is who he says he is and really means what he says.

This was a problem back in Jesus’ time too, by the way. Luke 16:27-31 records a parable he told that addresses this exact point. To me, the price of humanity having been created with some measure of free will is that, no matter what God does, it will always be a matter of debate. There can never be a “clear” revelation that puts an end to it.