Tag Archives: forgiveness

What Google says the Bible advocates

Correcting what the World thinks “the Bible advocates”

I’m depressed. Go to Google, type “Bible advocates”, and see the popular suggested searches that appear: “violence”… “killing non believers”… “slavery”. You can’t even get “love” to appear. Type an L to try and prompt it, and you won’t get anything. Google just sits there, confused, not suggesting anything. Same with F (for forgiveness) and J (for joy). P (for peace) just gives you “polygamy” and “death penalty”.

So today, I am fixing it. Some of that stuff is treated in the Bible, but none of it is what the Bible is about. Here is what it is about:

Google suggestionWhat the Bible is really about
A“abortion”, “child abuse” Abundant life, Atonement
B(no suggestions) Baptism, Begotten son
C“child abuse” Christ, Carry your cross
D“death penalty” Divinity
E(no suggestions) Eternity
F(no suggestions) Forgiveness, Freedom, Father
G“genocide” God, Grace
H (no suggestions) Holy Spirit
I“inc” Incarnation
J (no suggestions) Jesus
K“killing” King of kings
L (no suggestions) Love, Lord
M (no suggestions) Mercy, Messiah
N (no suggestions) All things new
O (no suggestions) Only begotten son
P“polygamy”, “death penalty” Peace, Prayer
Q (no suggestions) Quiet
R (no suggestions) Redemption
S“slavery”, “stoning”, “socialism” Salvation, Sacrifice, Son of God, Sabbath, Service, Freedom from sin, Defeat of Satan
T“the bible advocates slavery, violence, genocide” Trinity, Truth
U (no suggestions) Unity
V“violence” Virgin birth
W (no suggestions) Worship, Will of God
X (no suggestions) Example of Christ, Crucifixion
Y“yelp”, “yale” Pray
Z (no suggestions) Zion
Why I am a Christian

Nice, smart… Christian? My story of 21st century faith.

It’s been a bad week for real Christianity. A month ago, when Pope Francis was in town, headlines were filled every day with the Christianity that I see and practice— one that looks like Jesus, that uses words like “beauty” and “hope”, that says things like “think of the poor” and “stop harming the earth”.

What a difference a month makes.

The Christlike Christian has slipped back beneath the waves of the popular imagination, supplanted by that pugnacious character we all love to hate. Let’s call him “Smackdown Christian”.

  • He’s privileged yet full of self-pity, just itching to take offense. That’s why he’s up in arms about a Starbucks cup with no snowflakes. (I still question whether anyone is actually upset over this, by the way.)
  • He likes nothing better than to suit up as judge and jury over other people’s transgressions. That’s why he came out with a policy this week that bans, not only gay people, but their kids from the Mormon Church.

It’s thanks largely to the popularity of Smackdown Christian that my faith of hope, beauty and sacrifice has gotten such a dire reputation among outsiders. At this juncture, then, I thought it would be a good week to just talk about one real-Christian’s-eye-view of the faith, who we are, and what we stand for.

Why I’m not a Christian

Popular imagination holds two prevailing theories about why people are Christians:

  1. They learned the faith at their mother’s knee and haven’t questioned it since.
  2. They need it as a crutch for life; it makes them feel good.

Speaking personally, the pivotal moments of my faith journey came at ages 13, 26, and 36. All resulted from profound moments of personal crisis in which I was questioning everything, especially God. Have I found the right answers to those questions? Was I preconditioned to accept Christian faith by my upbringing? These are discussions I’m willing to have, but they are separate from the theory of unquestioned faith in an unbroken line from early childhood. The facts just don’t support that explanation of faith in my life (or, for that matter, in the lives of any other Christians whose stories I know).

As for “feeling good”: when I was single, I would sometimes fantasize that I had a girlfriend. The exercise left me feeling worse instead of better, because it only emphasized the gap between imagination and reality. Think about your own life: what things give you comfort? We Christians are just like you. We are not a different species. Our brains work the same way as yours. We cannot be comforted by imaginary wives or jobs or health, any more than you can.

It is no different with God. Faith flows from a body of life experience. It is not simply conjured up out of whole cloth for the way it makes us feel.

Why I am a Christian

As an Earth-science major at Stanford, I didn’t used to believe in faults. Growing up in California, I knew that faults were gigantic scars carving across the landscape, so the prosaic little swales that go for faults in most places didn’t impress me, and there was never any hard evidence. Finding a fault line, it turns out, is a process of building a case from dozens of tiny clues, any one of which is unconvincing on its own.

My faith journey has been like that too. Part of it was that time in high school biology when I learned about how DNA encodes the structure of a protein. Part of it is the feeling I get when I watch a sunset. Part of it is my study of the manuscript evidence for scripture. But the biggest part is having lived my life all wrong. One example: our society is sex-crazed and I absorbed that attitude in spades, with the result that I was miserable. At age 26, when I discovered the Biblical advice to flee from sexual immorality, every fiber of my being recognized the truth of it. I immediately made major changes in my life that offered profound relief, and I began to wonder what else the Bible had to teach.

From that point, I began a journey of trying out other pieces of Biblical wisdom in my day-to-day life. When a friend stole $2000 from me, I sent her $700 more; to my surprise, my anger evaporated as the whole thing became a loving gift, and the unmerited grace proved redemptive for her as well. When a misunderstanding led to a blow-up at a Christian tutoring center where I volunteered, instead of cutting ties to make a principled stand, the relationships were healed with the help of Matthew 18. When I went on a short-term mission trip to serve orphans in Nicaragua, I learned far more than I taught. The Biblical wisdom was radically opposite to everything I thought I knew, yet it proved life-giving in case after case.

Why I believe

Yet good advice is one thing— What about Jesus? What about the miracles? What about what some people call “the mythology”? Why believe in that just because the advice was better than what society has to teach? Why am I not dissuaded by all the evidence to the contrary? Because, in the words of Fox Mulder, “All the evidence to the contrary is not dissuasive.” The various books of the gospel are written and intended as actual history, and surviving copies are as well attested as any other ancient historical records (actually much better). The main rationale for setting them aside is just that the events they describe seem so unlikely. But is it possible that something amazing happened once, something wildly contrary to everything we understand about the working of the world? Of course.

Our entire lives— from air travel to cell phones to Google maps— are all wildly contrary to the understanding of every human being who has ever lived prior to 1800. Their best educated would tell you it is impossible to do the things we now do every day. The explanation is simply their ignorance. They were ignorant of the deep things of science. Is it not equally possible that we, for all our worldly knowledge, are equally ignorant of the deep things of God?

Hotel Europa Belfast, before and after

Three things we must learn from 50,000 casualties in Belfast

Ten days ago, I was standing in front of the most bombed hotel in the world. It’s the Hotel Europa in Belfast, center of “The Troubles” of Northern Ireland that, from 1968-1998, killed or injured more than 50,000 people.

As we drove around the city, our tour guide showed us 200-year-old buildings still scarred with shrapnel damage. She spoke about her three most formative decades, living in fear. All of that changed with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. “Now,” she said, “we have real nightlife here in town center. Bit late for my generation o’ course, but I do love leadin’ tours now. We used to have terrorists; now we have tourists.”

What changed? Significantly, not much. We saw neighborhoods where most houses were flying the Irish flag, and others all flying the Union Jack. So then how was peace made after 30 years of strife? To me, the more our tour guide spoke, the more it sounded like all the Christian parties involved had simply started applying the teachings of Christ: forgiveness, togetherness, acceptance. It is a lesson that we in America would do well to heed.

Forgiveness

You’ve heard the U2 song. “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” invokes the memory of a peaceful protest march shattered when British soldiers spontaneously opened fire on unarmed Irish civilians, killing 14. It’s a stirring anthem. I have heard it used to score a call-to-action video, juxtaposing images of the massacre against the evocative words. There’s just one problem with that. Far from glorifying the events or calling for continued violent resistance, the song’s only point is to deplore the violence on all sides. “How long?” the lyrics ask, “How long must we sing this song?”

In early live performances, the natural emotional responses were so strong, the tendency to misunderstand was so prevalent, that the band had to fall all over themselves to underline its passivist message. “This is not a rebel song,” was an oft-repeated introduction. They soon began planting a white flag at center stage while performing. Why was it so difficult for people to understand it as a song, not of reliving our grievances, but of laying down our grievances? Because the teachings of Jesus that inspired the song are not natural. They are supernatural. “You have heard it said: love your friends and hate your enemies. But I say to you: love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you… No greater love has a man than this: that he lay down his life for his friends.” Christ proved that in his willingness to lay down his own life, invoked in the song’s final lyrics: “Claim the victory Jesus won…on [a] Sunday, bloody Sunday.”

What happened in Northern Ireland was not that there were suddenly no more wrongs to avenge. It was not that perfect agreement was achieved. It was not that one side “won”. People simply decided that 30 years of blowing each other up hadn’t solved anything; that maybe it would be worth trying to coexist and work together for a change. They decided, in effect, that Jesus’ advice might be right.

Togetherness

The one substantive change in Northern Irish society described as we drove though those flag-flying neighborhoods was this: strong laws have been put in place to prevent discrimination and foster integration in public life. In the past, discrimination was a primary engine of conflict. Now, schools mix Catholic and Protestant children in classrooms. Workplaces must report detailed demographics to show they are practicing equal opportunity. The result? Former enemies are getting to know each other.

The lamb shall lie down with the lion, says scripture. Togetherness has enormous power; the great humanitarian travesties of our time are all rooted in artificial divisions & separations that give animosity its power. There was always an awful lot of bad-mouthing “the others” before any real violence broke out.

Absent real firsthand knowledge of “the other”, any manner of falsehoods about them can take root and flourish. This can happen so long as we won’t trouble to know them, even if they live right next door. God’s example to us is exactly the opposite; even the very name of Jesus— Emmanuel— means “God with us.” Matthew 18 teaches that the only path to healing division is, sit down face to face and talk to each other. Christ’s final recorded prayer was for unity, his deepest grief as he overlooked Jerusalem was that he could not gather them all to himself, and the portrait of heaven in Revelations consists of great host from every nation, all together as one and praising God.

Bringing it to America

In America today, we are being taught to hate one another. Messages in all of our political media, left and right, reinforce the teachings that “they are not like us,” that they want to destroy the things we value, that there can be no common ground between us and them. Many of us believe those messages, but our country’s last, best hope may be this: that deep down inside, some part of us still knows otherwise. Deep down inside, we cannot wholly reject the fact that we work every day alongside people who are aren’t like us, and we do so  in peace and mutual respect, despite what the popular narratives say. Even in states of deepest red and blue, a landslide majority is only 70/30. We have “the other” all around us, and every day we are partnering with them to serve tables and erect skyscrapers and type computer code.

The truth is, what unites us is stronger than what divides us. For proof that this truth is still true, we have only to shut off the television, shut off the radio, shut off the computer, and open our eyes to look around. Far from trying to destroy what we hold dear, “the others” are mostly just doing what we are doing: raising kids, paying bills, pursuing happiness. If you’ve heard different, I challenge you this: do what Jesus did. Find one. Go near. Sit down. Take a little time and get to know. Find a common goal and work towards it together. Go running or fishing, make quilts, play chess.

If we would all do that, in the end, it wouldn’t take long before we all would realize that “the other” isn’t nearly so bad, or so easy to hate, as we thought.

LittleGirlScreen604x270s

God, condemnation, and the “unrepentant sinner”

We all have sin. Scripture says so. Christians say so; even conservative Christians say so. Why, then, is there so much talk nowadays about how people are “in sin” and therefore condemned to God’s judgment? Do we have to quit our “sin” in order to be Christians? Do we have to quit our “sin” in order to be saved?

What is an unrepentant sinner?

A major idea of modern Christianity in America, non-controversial in even the most conservative circles, is that “ex-sinners” are welcome. “Ex-sinners” are non-problematic for us; many of us think of ourselves as “ex-sinners”, and rightfully include our deliverance from sin as a cornerstone of our personal testimony. “All have sinned” is thus held to be a thing primarily of our personal pasts, and our term for people who meet this test is “repentant sinner.”

What, then, of the “unrepentant sinner”, whose “sin” is still acknowledged to be in the present? People quote verses like “wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of heaven” to show that his choices are: (1) to desist from a certain list of sins (see below) or (2) be condemned to eternal hell. But then, in effect, his salvation stems from his behavior and we are back under the law; Christ did not come simply to change up the line of reasoning by which sinners are condemned.

If we only welcome “ex-sinners”, then another way of phrasing our message to the world is: “Go clean up your act, and then you are invited to join us,” or at least, “You may join us provisionally so long as you clean up your act.” The line of reasoning is that we must protect ourselves from the unrepentant sinner (often quoting the warning of 1 Corinthians 5:11). But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Whereas we, in our imposition of prerequisites and conditionals, are like the early days of Alcoholics Anonymous, turning away the “unrespectables” to protect their program, only to find in the end that, “We were intolerant. How could we guess that all those fears were to prove groundless? How could we know that thousands of these sometimes frightening people were to make astonishing recoveries and become our greatest workers?”

In the parable of the sowerone major point lost on our non-agricultural generation is the shocking wastefulness; Christ as the sower makes no distinctions about where he spends himself. He scatters as liberally to the poor soil and the thorn bushes as to the good. If he made no such distinctions with his grace, if he made no such judgments about who is worthy to receive his largess, then why should we make such distinctions? I think Christ’s point is that you and I, as we are out there sowing, have no idea where is the good soil and where the bad. Sometimes the most radiant Christians (e.g. Paul) come from the most surprising and least worthy places (e.g. Paul). Christ himself said, “Whoever is forgiven much will love much.”

“Acceptable” sin

In our contemporary Christian culture, we have come around to a conventional wisdom that breaks down “sins” into three categories:

  1. Acceptable: Those that can be freely practiced without reflection, hesitation or misgiving. These include eating unclean food, breaking the sabbath, and (increasingly) remarriage after divorce.
  2. Borderline: Those that can be practiced now and again, so long as it is due to “weakness” and you feel shame (aka “repentance”) about it. This covers pretty much the whole range from alcoholism to sexual sin.
  3. Horrifying: Those that are so egregious they must not be practiced, ever. This category is largely theoretical, used as a debating tactic when shock value is needed; it’s mainly just murder and bestiality.

It is adherence to this conventional wisdom that fuels our entire modern culture war. People whose “sins” fall into the “acceptable” category are readily welcomed and embraced by the church, whereas those who are relegated to “borderline” status are offered a false correlation: between being acceptable to Christians and living in constant shame.

Here is the problem: it’s all a cultural construct. Even conservative churches now readily take in those who would have caused a great scandal just a generation or two ago. Rightly so. The weight of scripture is overwhelmingly against the drawing of niceties between different kinds of sin. James says “Whoever obeys the whole law yet breaks it at just one point is guilty of breaking it all.” Paul makes a similar point when talking about circumcision. And Christ himself equates one of our “horrifying” sins (murder) with words spoken in anger and contempt, a practice so common among contemporary Christians that it is seen as totally “acceptable” (if not “encouraged”!)

Christ’s plucking grain on the sabbath, Peter’s vision of eating forbidden food, Paul’s railing against the need for circumcision: these are not meant to be line-item deletions of three specific legal requirements, leaving the rest of the law in full force. They must be read as they would have seemed to the original audience, as wild and revolutionary, sweeping and scandalous, not chipping away at the cornices of the law, but swinging at the foundation stones with a pickaxe.  If we are to tolerate unrepentance towards the “acceptable” sins, then we ourselves are the transgressors when we refuse equally free welcome, grace and acceptance to all.

Errors of judgment and license

Unfortunately, many instinctively revolt against this line of reasoning because it is open to abuse. Always has been. That doesn’t make the theology wrong. Paul was God’s pioneer for grace-instead-of-law, and he was constantly having to defend it against the legalists on his right and the licentious on his left. Sin still has the power to destroy, but so does the knee-jerk, unthinking, reflexive application of the law.

As brothers and sisters, we are not to stand idly by when we witness destructive sin at work in a person’s life. Simple human mercy demands that much, to say nothing of scripture’s commands that we care for each other and bear one another’s burdens. But we must remember: there is more to knowing what needs to change in a person’s life than simply knowing whether or not Hebrew law is being obeyed. It is the blanket application of law— without love, without reflection, without relationship— that cannot survive in the heart of the true Christian.

Related Links

What is sin? It’s not that simple.