Tag Archives: Hard questions

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.

Christian hypocrite

Why I am a Christian Hypocrite

My wife and I like to tour open houses. Mostly we come away with a deeper appreciation of our own modest home (there are a lot of weird houses on the market), but there was one a few weeks ago… hoo boy. Three stories. Spectacular panoramic views from every floor. Five bedrooms, a game room,  an office, a gorgeous yard. And the asking price was “only” $2.5 million! I’d be lying if I said I didn’t go home and do the math. (Shocker: we couldn’t afford it.)

But now, in my imagination, it’s 2025. My Christian bestseller is in its third printing, and I’ve got the money for a house like that. I buy it. I move in. I enjoy myself and live in fabulous luxury, leaving undone much good that could, instead, have been done with that money… just one more Christian hypocrite.

Notions of hypocrisy and greed run rife through the modern outsider’s view of Christianity, and not without reason. Our faith calls on us to give, yet only 3% of us tithe and only a quarter give anything. While championing marriage and fidelity, many of us are unfaithful and divorce. We ask for grace when we fall short but give none when others do. I have to stop and ask myself… where have we gone wrong?

I am not going to pretend that I can answer for the misdeeds of all professed Christians, but perhaps there is some insight to be gained simply from examining my own. Do I live up to the teachings of scripture? Do I even practice what I myself preach? And if not, can my faith still have any value?

Not living up to scripture

Jesus requires me to deny myself, take up my cross, and follow him. Scripture assures me that friendship with the world amounts to enmity with God. In the zeal of his faith, John the Baptist moved out to the wilderness and lived on locusts and wild honey.

Obviously, apart from Shane Claiborne, few modern American Christians make such a commitment. Certainly I don’t. My modest house is a fabulous palace by the standards of much of the world. I own enough clothes and shoes to fill a closet. I am never seriously hungry. I have not committed the full weight of my existence my pursuit of Christ’s teachings, and it is reasonable to question whether that proves my faith is hollow.

My only defense is, some is more than none. I am doing my best. We give less than we possibly could, but more than a lot of people, and we do that because we believe the scriptures that urge us to do good in the world. I try to be patient and loving and kind. I’m coming along. I used to be a lot worse at it than I am now, and the Bible gives me a lot of tools I wouldn’t otherwise have.

It is possible to quote passages from the Bible that point to the total commitment it requires, and then to point to the shortfall in my own life as a fatal flaw in my faith. OK. But then what? I am not going to renounce such good as I am doing. I am not going to repent of my efforts to be more Christlike.

Instead, I will live my faith like I live every other area of my life. I believe in Capitalism, and don’t feel I must abandon it because in real life it needs commonsense regulation and a social safety net. I believe in the scientific method even though there are things we still don’t understand. Despite its many flaws, I believe in my country (though this election cycle may not be bringing out our best). There may be many parts of our lives— friendships, family, faith— that, though little and broken, are still good. Yeah. Still good.

To be continued…

Next week: Not practicing what we preach

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.”

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?

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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.

Sun behind the clouds

But isn’t it all God’s fault…?

Where is God when bad things happen? (Third and final part in a series.)

  • Two weeks ago, we talked about mass shootings and other evil: “The message of Christ’s resurrection is that, come the worst this world can deliver, this world is not the end of the story.”
  • Last week, we talked about how to make peace with God when we are angry about the evil that touches our lives: “Christ found his way to peace with God despite the evil that befell him; so can you and I.”
  • This week, we get to the hard question: how there can there be evil in the first place if God is all-powerful, made the world, and is good? Isn’t it all God’s fault?

Remember in the movie City Slickers? That scene where Jack Palance reveals to Billy Crystal the secret of life, only he doesn’t reveal anything? “It’s one thing.” “What thing?” “That’s what you’ve got to figure out.” Answers to life’s hard questions are like that: regardless of what someone tells you, it’s meaningless until you find the way there yourself. Today’s posting is about my journey and some of the answers I found. The intent is only to encourage you that finding these answers is possible. I can recommend some initial approach vectors that got me partway, but in the end, you must undertake a journey of your own.

Approach #1: What we’re made for

To me, it clears God from some of the blame for making us live where evil can touch us when I remember that, according to the Bible, this isn’t really the place he designed us for.

Think about this: why does evil bother us so much? Tragedy is an everyday part of life. Why do we get so sad when people die? Death is our one certainty; why should it be such an uphill battle for us to accept it? I have read both secular and spiritual answers to these questions, and I think both have value, but if you want to know whether the existence of evil disproves the Bible, you have to focus on the spiritual side.

The Bible says we were designed to live somewhere else. All we had to do was turn away from evil, but we messed it up. Aren’t we just paying for Adam & Eve’s original sin? Nope, we’re no better. We brought this on ourselves. Think about your own life: how many of us have a life with no regrets, nothing we’ve done wrong, no act that caused pain to ourselves and others? All of that is what the Bible means by the word “sin”. If we don’t even measure up to our own standards, is it such a stretch to consider we might not measure up to God’s? I am not saying our sins one-for-one deserve our misfortunes; I know from first-hand experience that, once you’re out of the immaculate world of pure good, some very disproportionate evils become possible.

So, maybe a good God couldn’t (a) create us with a longing for good and then (b) send us to live in a world of evil to torture us. But that isn’t the Bible’s explanation of why we live here. To my mind, a good God could make us for a better place, but then when it was clear we had some growing up to do, he could hustle us out of there to keep it nice for when we’ve finally learned a thing or two and are ready for it. Meanwhile, he could send us to stay temporarily in a place where we’re going to get religion about why evil is so destructive, why turning away from it is so important.

Approach #2: “Sorta bad”? Or “Really bad”?

My son and I had a rocky time during his teenage years. He doesn’t remember it now, but I have been compared to a police state, martial law, and dictators from Slobodan Milošević to Mao Tse-tung. What was the problem? The two biggest issues were (1) limiting his Internet time to just two hours a day and (2) asking his employed adult brother to pay steeply discounted rent. He literally moved out the day he turned 18 in order to escape from the oppression.

A few years back, I related that story in a public park with a gentleman who called himself Rob The Atheist. Rob had suggested to me that a loving God cannot exist because, if he did, he would never allow the horrific evils of this world. But, I said, I am a loving father, yet I deliberately inflicted situations that my son found intolerable; after that I allowed him to suffer months of semi-homelessness. Could a loving father do that? “Those things,” Rob countered, “are only sorta bad. I’m talking about the really bad stuff.”

But I would submit that the difference between “sorta bad” and “really bad” is only a matter of perspective. Rob saw the things I did to my son as only “sorta bad” because he has the same perspective I do; whereas my son saw them as intolerable human rights violations, readily compared to acts of genocide. Isn’t it just possible that, from the perspective of eternity, the tragedies of this temporal world are less all-important to God than they seem from our current worm’s eye view?

Certainly scripture repeatedly makes that point:

  • For now we see only a reflection in a mirror… (1 Corinthians 13:11-12)
  • As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways. (Isaiah 55:8-9)
  • Do not fear those who can kill the body and afterward can do no more. (Luke 12:4)
  • Blessed are those who mourn… (Matthew 5:4)
God’s problem

Finally, as to the contention that God, if truly all-powerful, should simply prevent evil: in the final analysis, the moment God gave us free will, by that act he voluntarily surrendered some part of his power. Thus, we have a God who says, “I take no pleasure in the death of anyone,” a Christ who laments over those he longs to gather together but cannot, who begs to bypass the cross but knows it to be impossible, and a Lord’s prayer that simply asks for a day when God’s will is done on Earth— unfettered, unclouded by sin— in the same way it is in heaven.

Until that day, both we and God will always have the same problem: that we live in a place where bad things happen, that we love what death can touch.

 

 

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What is sin? It’s not that simple.

It used to be easy to say what is sin. Then Jesus came along and messed it all up.

What is sin? In the old days it was easy. There was Hebrew law, and whatever was against Hebrew law was sin. The end. Theoretically, if you knew the law, you could follow the law and poof! No sin. If you didn’t follow the law, there were human consequences— anything from offering a sacrifice to stoning at the city gate. By the time Jesus was born, the teams were well established: sinners on the left, self-appointed righteous on the right, and let’s not think too much about the parts of scripture that say things like, “they all have turned away” and “no one does good; not even one.”

But then, everything changed.

Suddenly there was a prophet running around performing miraculous signs and wonders, only instead of saying the things he was supposed to say— like, “The love of God is upon the righteous, the pharisees; but the tax collectors and prostitutes will know the bitterness of his wrath,”— it was just the opposite. To the righteous he was saying, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!” while to the sinful it was, “Then neither do I condemn you.” To make matters worse, he said, it’s not just about human consequences any more, now it’s about all eternity, and once again, the worst news is for the A-students: “How will you escape being condemned to hell?” and “The tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you.”

What happened? What about those super clear bright-line laws, given to Moses, enduring for thousands of years? A big part of the last 23 books in the New Testament are an extended effort to try and thrash out an answer to that very question. Christ exhaled grace and truth together as naturally as the air he breathed, but the rest of us have been struggling with it for thousands of years now. Here are three things that, in our times, I think we tend to forget:

  • The law isn’t “whittled down”; it’s all or nothing
  • Sin still exists and does damage
  • There is no more bright line
Not whittled down

I sometimes hear Christ described as if he were some sort of “book-keeper in chief”. Like his coming to earth, his sinless life, his death and resurrection, all amount to some grand simplification of the tax code: strike a few confusing line items over here, close a few loopholes over there, shake out the dead wood, and there you have it: the “new law”. It’s basically the same arrangement as before, but now it’s non-Christians on the left and Christians on the right, and list of stuff we gotta do is somewhat shorter.

He didn’t come so we could go on condemning others and congratulating ourselves: he came to show us that in God’s eyes, we are all the same.

The problem with this line of reasoning is, Christ didn’t come to shake up and simplify the tax code: he came to abolish taxes. He didn’t come to whittle away at the law and make it easier to comply: he came to set us free from the law. He didn’t come so we could go on condemning others and congratulating ourselves: he came to show us that in God’s eyes, we are all the same.

That the whole law is still in effect, we have abundant evidence in scripture:

  • For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law. (Matthew 5:18)
  • For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. (James 2:10)
  • Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ. (Galatians 5:3-4)

That we are free from the whole of it is also well supported:

  • It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. (Galatians 5:1)
  • Through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. (Romans 8:2)

Many of us live as if we are free from certain sections of the law, yet hold condemnation in our hearts for those who transgress against other sections of the law. In so doing, if we believe that only certain sections of the law are still “in effect”, then we ourselves are transgressing pretty seriously against one of the major points of Christ’s message.

The sin is still out there

The Hebrew laws are a favorite objection to Christian faith, because the world has changed a lot since they were written and few take the trouble to ponder how they would have sounded, or what they would have meant, to the original audience against a backdrop of Hammurabi and Draco (of “draconian justice” fame). But what’s clear to me when I read them are the grace notes of protection from the things that can harm us here on Earth.

Even though most of us no longer live under those laws, the potential for sin to harm us still carries all of its full force. For me, the entire initial draw of Christianity was the news that another way was open to me than the one I’d been on, that I could be free from the monkey of sin on my back. When scripture records Christ talking to a sinner about their sin, I’ve been there, and I can sometimes feel the waves of their relief rising from the page.

Far from the antagonistic talk of damnation and hellfire that many of us imagine, when done the way Jesus intended, a talk about freedom from sin should be a time of rejoicing for all concerned, as it was for Zacchaeus the tax collector, or for the woman at the well, or for the woman accused of adultery, or for me.

In my view, Christ urges us to help our brother remove the speck from his eye, not to make him more acceptable to God, but because having a speck in your eye is painful. And the process of having it removed is, in the main, a tremendous relief. If it turns into a combative process fraught with resistance, antagonism and hostility, it might be time for the doctor, not to blame the patient, but to question whether she’s doing it right.

No bright line

So, back to the original question: how do we know what is sin? So many of us want to answer this question with reference to Hebrew law, or some subset thereof. We have been trained to think that way by our culture and our pastors and our own study of scripture. But there are only two ways to reference Hebrew law:

  1. Certain whittled-down parts of it, which scripture does not support as discussed above, or
  2. All of it, which none of us live by.

Instead, the same New Testament scriptures that free us from the law give us some new ways of understanding what is sin:

  1. Sin is whatever causes damage
    “By their fruits ye shall know them,” says scripture. It’s talking about false prophets in Matthew, but it’s just as applicable to us (Luke 6:45) and our actions (Galatians 5:19-23). If something in your life is producing a harvest of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, then you want to think about that when evaluating whether it is a sin. Contrariwise, if it is producing hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like… well, then you want to think about whether it needs to go, no matter how outwardly pious it might seem.
  2. We each determine what is sin for us, and it’s nobody else’s business
    People get really mad about this one. You hear terms like “accommodating the culture” and “being lukewarm for the gospel” and “moral relativism” and so on. But for people who are mad about this way of defining sin under the new covenant, your beef is with folks like Paul and James:
    – “So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God… everything that does not come from faith is sin.” (Romans 14:22-23)
    – “If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.” (James 4:16)

I think the point of all of it is, there’s no more room for the pharisees among us in God’s not-so-new economy. If you want to know what is sin, it’s many thousands of years gone by since it was as simple as finding a verse and then pointing a finger.

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.