Tag Archives: Sin

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.

April Fools' Day secret

Of deep dark secrets and April Fools’ Day

My family loves April Fools’ Day. It’s a classic day of lighthearted pranks, what with the biscuits that look like chocolate chip cookies and the purple food coloring in the toilet tank. We are tricking the people we love and it’s all in good fun, but on this day, I can’t help stopping to reflect, just a little, about the deeper questions of truth and untruth.

When does a prank become a “little white lie”? When does a little white lie become a deep, dark secret? And what is the harm of a deep, dark secret anyhow?

What’s the harm?

The truth has become a slippery commodity in the 21st Century. There is almost no claim you can’t support with a little creative Google searching. From global warming to GMOs to gun control, whatever side you are on, you can find experts to back you up. The result is that many of us have simply thrown up our hands. “You believe your ‘truth’, I’ll believe my ‘truth’, and they will both be equally ‘true’.”

This works fine for things like, “Is it better to shop at Vons or CostCo?” because really either way will work. It works less well for questions like, “Do cigarettes cause cancer?”, and even less for, “Does the third rail cause death by electrocution?”

Bottom line: some things are true whether we like it or not. There is an inescapable reality to confront: in the natural world, in the choices we make as a society, and— most importantly— in the personal choices we make in the course of our day-to-day lives.

Secrecy is a red flag

Scripture says, “People loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.” That is a litmus test. If our “truth” is a harmless one, we can generally tell because we’re happy to talk about it. I have a friend who loves shopping at CostCo and will talk at length all the great deals on 12 pounds of nutmeg.

On the other hand, suppose we find ourselves thinking, “Well, I shouldn’t tell him about that, it’ll only upset him.” In my experience, more often than not, such omissions are motivated more to hide my own shame than out of any genuine concern for others.

I heard a public service announcement once that said, “When you’re lonely or sad, it’s always there for you… If alcohol is working for you, maybe it already owns you.” But it is just as true for every form of addiction, whether shopping or food or gambling or pornography or drugs, or anything else that the Bible warns can hold us captive. What fuels the addiction is the secrecy and shame. It may seem ridiculous, but all of us recovering addicts can relate to the plight of “the tippler” from The Little Prince: “I drink to forget… to forget that I am ashamed… ashamed of drinking.”

And the truth shall set you free

Scripture offers one prescription for those of us in the throes of self-damage or self-destruction: start by getting rid of the lies.

  • When he [the devil] lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.
  • But let your “Yes” be “Yes,” and your “No” be “No.” Anything beyond this comes from the evil one.
  • Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin… Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

As we joyfully trick the people we love this April Fools’ Day, let’s spare a moment for some internal spiritual house cleaning, and see if we can find some ways we are “tricking” them that may be not so joyful.

Other recommended posts:

Victory: New Year's resolution

How a New Year’s resolution can rescue your soul

Some folks are down on the New Year’s resolution, but I am a big fan. At the heart of any resolution, there is a spirit of transformation, which is one of scripture’s favorite topics:

  • “The old has passed away. Behold! The new has come.”
  • “See, I am doing a new thing! I am making a way in the wilderness.”
  • “He said, ‘I am making all things new.'”

The sense that a new year brings new promise— a new hope, a chance to leave behind the mistakes of the past and start fresh— these are all principles that originated with Christ. Before that, there were two categories of people: the worthy, and the fallen. Once you had strayed from the path, there was no recovery, and the “worthy” took every opportunity to make sure you knew it. As my friend April Kelsey recently put it, “You became a cup of spit, a licked candy bar, a white sheet rolled in the mud. Consumed. Polluted. Spent.”

This view is still held today by the Pharisees among us who have missed the point of Christ. But that is my point: they have missed the point. If, today, you are one of the “fallen”— if you have made some mistake so horrible, if you have strayed from the path so far, if you are carrying some monkey on your back from which you can never be free— then there is good news: you can be free.

The “Big Book” of Alcoholics Anonymous opens with a letter from a doctor, describing a patient “…of a type I had come to regard as hopeless… He acquired certain ideas concerning… a Power which could pull chronic alcoholics back from the gates of death.” Many of us know of AA’s “Twelve Steps”, but the heart of the recovery that had been missed by so many before is captured in Step Two: “We came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”

As I have written before:

Whatever may be wrong in our lives, don’t we say, “It’s my problem, it’s up to me to fix it?” But the truth is, no matter who you are, no matter how powerful and clever and creative you are, you didn’t create your sin by yourself, and you are not going to solve it by yourself… whatever is causing destruction in your life, more likely than not, there is a multi-billion dollar industry supplying it to you.

No matter what rut you are stuck in, another way is open to you. That was my story. My burden was sexual sin, and my cross was soul-crushing loneliness. When I finally encountered a true scriptural perspective… when I finally could understand that the Bible’s urgings against “sin” were not meant to control me and crush my spirit, but to offer me a way of escape from the very thing that was destroying me… when I realized that Christ had given his life to make that way available to me… that was a new day. That day was not like all the others where I simply determined to “do better”.

So this year, when you make your resolution, the same one you have made so many years before, when you grimly grit your teeth and resolve this time to succeed, “knowing” at the back of your mind that it’s all pointless, that it’s going to be just like all the other times, that you are going to fail… do something different. Quit treasuring up your secret shame and let in the outside air. Others have found the path, and so can you. You cannot find it by yourself. You cannot find it without faith that it is there. But it is there. I know it, because it happened to me.

This year, let your resolution be that you will find it too.

Take a stand, or spineless for Jesus?

Take a stand: be spineless for Jesus

This week an atheist replied to one of my tweets. I agreed with him that the world is a beautiful place.

One of my posts was linked from Reddit’s “/r/Catholicism” forum, then suppressed on the grounds that is was heresy. I agreed with them that sin is real and harmful.

Why am I agreeing with all these people who disagree with me? Am I being spineless, seeking the favor of man, failing to take a stand for God? Or rather, what if “looking for common ground, building bridges, and being kind” is my stand for God?

“Take A Stand”

So much of our modern Christianity seems to be informed by the need to keep people from being confused. “If I fail to take a stand,” the reasoning goes, “people will think I support x, y, or z.” First of all, are people really going to be confused about what we believe simply because we were nice to someone who believes differently? But more importantly, what if they are confused? So what? Why do we care so much what people think of us?

Paul didn’t. Numerous places in scriptures, he talks about that “dirty word” concept— accommodation of culture— in his efforts to spread the gospel. For example:

“To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” (1 Corinthians 9:20-22, emphasis added)

At one point in Acts, he arrives in Athens and is “greatly distressed to see the city full of idols.” So what does he do? Get in their face? Condemn the idols in order to take a stand for Jesus? Tear his clothes to show his great zeal? None of the above. Instead, he compliments them on the very thing he objects to: their religious fervor. He goes on to present the gospel as the great fulfillment of that fervor, but he never circles back to say, “Oh, and by the way, idolatry is wrong.” He is more interested in spending his airtime on the core gospel message than on having his personal belief system clearly understood.

Live at peace

The news nowadays is full of ways that we Christians are defining ourselves by our refusals. Just today there were two: people who feel their faith forbids them to conduct ordinary business because the opposite party is “in sin”. But Jesus specifically refuted that notion. “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s,” he said, despite behavior by the Romans  that was every bit as much an affront to God’s law as anything going on in modern-day America. That the bible objects to a behavior does not excuse us from a Christlike response to that behavior. Whereas we, in casting about for some kind of public response to “sin”, have landed firmly in a seat at the moneychanger’s table. 

Rather than stand off at a distance and refuse to engage, a more Christlike model comes close and engages completely. “Live in harmony with one another,” scripture urges, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” So much of our public persona nowadays is the farthest thing from that; I have trouble understanding it as anything other than spoiling for a fight.

Christ portrayed us as a light on a lampstand, a city on a hill, the salt of the earth. None of those things sits in a posture of judgment. How can we, as salt, give our flavor to that which we refuse even to touch?

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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.

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What is sin? It’s not that simple.

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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.

Burning anger

What to do when your anger makes you angry

I get it when I’m angry about the big stuff. Once a friend conned me out of $3500; I was angry. Once a project at work was single-handedly held up for nearly a year by a regulator who kept changing the rules on us; I was angry. It makes sense.

What baffles me is the irrational anger. Recently I read about a 120-foot rusted metal barricade, installed as a “sculpture”, that defaced a public plaza in Manhattan from 1981-89. I was furious for days. Over a problem I never saw, already resolved for more than 25 years. “Oooh, for a short time decades ago, certain million-dollar views weren’t quite as nice as they should have been!” What?

Anger is often a symptom

One of the best sermons I ever heard was in the late 1990s by Jay Mitchell called “I’m Angry! Now What?” He made the point that anger can be like a fire alarm— it is obvious and loud, but in the final analysis, it is only distantly related to the actual problem. The noise is caused by the smoke, which is coming from the fire. The urgent problem is to find the fire; only a fool would waste time trying to deal with the noise. Yet this is the most common reaction to anger: we fire both barrels at whatever set us off, without a moment’s pause to look for an actual source.

Once I was temping at an escrow office, and an agent was trying to close a deal, expecting some important documents. To do him a favor, the moment they arrived, I got up from my desk and walked them a block down the street to his office. The next day, he called my boss and demanded that I be fired. I never found out what perceived slight had made me the object of his wrath, but I have often wondered: Where in his life was the volcano of anger that erupted onto me as an essentially innocent bystander? And did he ever find it and extinguish it? (By the way, my boss did not fire me; she dropped that agent as a customer instead… “Oft doth evil mar itself.”)

“In your anger, do not sin”

I’ll never know what was going on in that agent’s life, but I can be inspired by that example to pause and reflect before I lash out in anger. Dealing constructively with anger is a part of life, and the bible has a lot of really sound advice about it, but the overarching principle comes from Psalm 4:4: “In your anger, do not sin.” I may never have sinned by calling someone’s boss to get them fired, but I have certainly blown it plenty of other times in my life. (Read: “reply-all button”.)

To deal with your anger by simply stifling it… this is little better than dealing with the fire alarm by ignoring it

The verse goes on to say, “Ponder in your own hearts on your beds, and be silent,” which, taken in isolation, sounds like advice to deal with your anger by simply stifling it. However, this is little better than dealing with the fire alarm by ignoring it; the real problem (the fire) will grow until it can no longer be ignored, when the problem will be more difficult (if not impossible) to resolve, and the destruction will inevitably be much greater. I once had a housemate whose significant relationships always went through the same pattern: things would mostly be good, but with some area of conflict. He would ignore the conflict (“take it like a man”, as he put it) until he reached the limits of his endurance, and then his verbal anger would explode, resulting in the destruction of the relationship.

The only solution he could imagine was to have unlimited endurance that could never be exhausted, so that he could continue to stifle his feelings in perpetuity. I urged him, instead, to consider trying to deal with the issue. His response to this was, “No, that’s what I just said: when I run out of patience and try to deal with the issue, that’s when the wheels come off and everything falls apart.” To him, “dealing with the issue” was synonymous with unconstructively blowing up at his partner. However, I do not think this is what scripture has in mind when it says to “ponder in your heart and be silent.”

“When the fire is out”

Instead, I think the biblical picture here is to take time, cool off, and reflect. I once had a friend who was so intent on taking Ephesians 4:26 literally and verbatim that, if she and her husband got into a fight close to sunset, she would insist on having it out right then. Some of their most heated arguments occurred that way. (A good example of the need to seek biblical advice in prayer, and in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit— not legalistically.) They finally learned that, if they were having issues with each other in the evening, they were much better off going to bed (there’s a literal verse application for you: “pondering in their bed”), and dealing with it fresh in the morning. Turned out most of the friction in their marriage had come from forcing serious discussions at the end of the day while they were both exhausted.

We may try to fight small fires ourselves, but in a big fire, by far the best course of action is to find a place of safety for ourselves and our loved ones, and to call in outside help. In the same way, few of our problems are created by ourselves alone, and few can be resolved by ourselves alone. Yet we often turn to secrecy because we find our problems embarrassing. Can you imagine declining to call the fire department out of similar reasoning? Trusted friends, pastors, counsellors… all can be part of helping us find, and resolve, the root causes of our anger.

Once the fire is put out— once we do not feel that hot anger rising in our cheeks— real work can be accomplished for good. In a building, if the problem is faulty wiring, that problem will still be there the next morning, and can be much more constructively addressed then. Whereas, there is a very good reason electricians don’t try to work on buildings while they are burning.

How Jesus is like nonfat milk

3 Ways Jesus is like nonfat milk

Milk is a starting place.
Milk polarizes.
Milk explains why Jesus had to die.

I don’t have to tell you that when it comes to milk, people have strong preferences. In no other area of life will 1% of butterfat raise such ardent passions. Yet in so many ways, this familiar white beverage is like Our Savior. Milk is a starting place. Milk polarizes. Milk even explains why Jesus had to die…

Milk is a starting place

We are born, I believe, with a desire to seek God. Even many atheists will agree with this, though they offer it to explain why “people had to invent God”, whereas I believe it falls into the same category as all our other in-born desires like food and water and sleep— in no other area is our desire for something held out as evidence that it doesn’t actually exist.

Yet, despite our desire for God, to us in our natural state, he is not particularly accessible. People are as often offended by God’s purity and God’s power as they are attracted by it. Especially in the 21st century America, these qualities of God seem opposed to values like openness and democracy. It runs contrary to our DNA nowadays to simply trust the powers that be to have our best interests at heart (as God has).

Into a world like this, Jesus comes to render God the father into an accessible human shape. In my “faith” conversations with non-believers, they often want to start by talking about objections: “How could God…” and “Why should God…”  and “Why doesn’t God just…” and so on. These are all valid questions and I think that all believers wrestle with them, but they don’t make a very good starting place.

Christ has so much to teach, but in several places, the bible encourages us to start with our times tables before we move on to wrestle with algebra and trig. “I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it,” says 1 Corinthians 3:2, and 1 Peter 2:2 says, “Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation.” Far from insult or condescension, these passages simply reflect the fundamental truth that learning about the deep things of God is like any other area of learning: you have to start at the beginning if you are to make any sense of it.

Milk polarizes

We have it right in my own family: to my brother-in-law, whole milk is a rich, creamy treat, while nonfat is flavorless blue water. To me, nonfat is clean and refreshing, while whole is gloppy and clogging.

Jesus has a similar polarizing quality. The apostle Paul says, “For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are an aroma that brings death; to the other, an aroma that brings life.” (2 Corinthians 2:15-16) He’s talking about the incense burned in the parade when Roman armies returned in triumph, marching captives before them toward execution. To the Romans, the incense meant victory and life, but to the captives, it was the stench of their utter destruction. All this even though the smell itself never changes.

Milk explains why Jesus had to die

As I mentioned, I like nonfat milk on my cereal. Once, my family went camping, and the only milk anyone brought was whole. “Well,” they explained, “you can just add water to the whole milk.” I countered, “Then I’ll just have watery whole milk!” You see, the problem is, I don’t like the butterfat, and whole milk still has it no matter how much water you add.

I am sometimes asked, why did Jesus have to die for our sins? Some have even claimed that Christ’s death on the cross is evidence that God is cruel and vindictive. By this line of reasoning, the sins we commit should be balanced against the good things we do, and if the good outweighs the bad, then God should be satisfied.

The problem is, this is just like trying to turn whole milk into nonfat by adding water. If you do, it will just give you an unappetizing frankenbeverage. You can never turn one into the other by adding something (like water); what is needed— the only real solution— is to take something away.

You may have heard the joke that you’ll never find a perfect church, and even if you do, you’ll mess it up when you get there. God’s problem with having the likes of us with him in heaven is, we’d do the same thing. Heaven is characterized by what it has, but also by what it has not: “There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Revelation 21:4)

When Jesus gave his life for us on the cross, he accomplished that. He turned something unappetizing to God, clogged by gloppy sin, into something delightful and refreshing.