Faith first

There’s a quiet little Scriptural principle about faith and love that encourages me. Let me see if I can explain it here in a way that makes sense.

I’ll start with my own experience today. This morning, driving into work, I was thinking about 1 John 4:7-21. It talks about God’s nature being love, and how that love is manifested to us and in us. First and foremost, God’s love is shown in the historical fact of Jesus becoming a man and dying for our sins. Second, it is shown as we let Him love others through us.

I began praying that I would show enough love to my students today that it would be a witness of God’s love for them, but as I thought about it, that seemed to assume that my own personal acts of love were somehow more important than the gospel itself. I decided the focus of my prayers shouldn’t be that people would be impressed by my love, but that they would be impressed by His.

Sure enough, just after my first class, I failed in a small but definite way to demonstrate love to one of my students. I tried to get past my own embarrassment and dismay to remember that it’s far more important that students see the love of God demonstrated in the gospel, than that they be impressed by me.

An hour later, in a time of worship and Bible study, several Christians confirmed this (without knowing it) by reminding me of the importance of simply remembering how much God loves me.

1 John 4:7-8 says,

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love.

Verses 11-12 say,

Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has seen God at any time; if we love one another, God abides in us, and His love is perfected in us.

Clearly, we are told to love one another, and that doing so displays the nature of God to others.

But right in between those two verses, we have these:

By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.

In other words: Love others, and expect that to help them see God. But the most important thing isn’t what you do; it’s what God has done for you.

That brings me to the quiet little principle I promised at the beginning.

Scripture refers to faith and love as all-important elements of the Christian life, but they are important in different ways. Faith is where we must always start. Love is where we must always end up.

  • 2 Peter 1:5-8 describes Christian growth as a process which begins with faith and leads step by step to love.
  • 1 Timothy 1:5 says the goal of Christian teaching is love which springs from a sincere faith.
  • Galatians 5:6 says that the Christian life is characterized by faith working through love. In context, the point is that it must start from faith rather than self-effort. Faith sets to work and keeps working until it has worked its way all the way to love.

1 John makes the same point, but it describes faith specifically as faith in God’s love. In receiving the gospel,

… we have come to know and have believed the love which God has for us. (1 John 4:16.)

This is where all our love starts:

We love, because He first loved us. (1 John 4:19.)

Ephesians 3:14-19 is similar:

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, … that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; and that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God.

Paul prays for believers to have the faith to see God’s love for them.

So the quiet little principle is this: Faith first, then love. Receive first, then give. Trust first, then obey. My first response to God, even before I give anything to him in ministry, is to receive what He gives me in the gospel. That way I’ll have all I need to give to others, and the focus will be on God’s grace, rather than on my obedience.

The Psalms and hating people (Psalm 139:19-24)

The Question

Psalm 139 starts with 18 wonderful verses about God’s intimate love for us. Then it suddenly breaks out into this:

O that You would slay the wicked, O God;
Depart from me, therefore, men of bloodshed.

For they speak against You wickedly,
And Your enemies take Your name in vain.

Do I not hate those who hate You, O LORD?
And do I not loathe those who rise up against You?

I hate them with the utmost hatred;
They have become my enemies.


How should we respond to verses like these?

  • Endorse them?
  • Spiritualize them first and then endorse them?
  • Endorse the honesty of the Psalm but reject the attitudes expressed in it?
  • Treat the Psalm as an example of what not to think or say?

Here’s my take on this particular Psalm.

“Search me”

Psalm 139 is a little different from most other imprecatory Psalms (the “imprecatory Psalms” are those in which the Psalmist calls down curses upon his enemies). First, the first 18 verses have a gentle tone that is in sharp contradiction to the hatred that follows. Second, just after saying he hates God’s enemies, David continues by saying:

Search me, O God, and know my heart;
Try me and know my anxious thoughts;

And see if there be any hurtful way in me,
And lead me in the everlasting way.

It’s as if he himself is doubting whether his hatred is really such a wonderful thing after all.

Sorting out our emotions in God’s presence

I don’t think verse 19,

O that You would slay the wicked, O God;
Depart from me, therefore, men of bloodshed,

should be read as some sort of doctrinal claim or as the logical conclusion of what came before. Rather, it’s a sudden outburst of emotion.

In fact, I think the whole section from 19-24 is about the emotion of hatred, not about a commitment to hate. What if the emotion of hatred is not always a sin? After all, feeling sadness or anger or fear is not by itself always a sin – what matters is what we do with those emotions. I suggest that the same thing is true here.

Suppose we read the Psalm this way: when David begins the Psalm, he comes to God distressed by feelings of hatred and anger. He needs to bring these emotions to God and process them him in His presence. What we see in Psalm 139 is how being in God’s presence transforms David’s emotional state into something that is pleasing to God.

Read this way, the Psalm falls into four sections. In verses 1-18, David first spends time getting his heart right before God. In verse 19 David finally bursts out with the pain that’s been in his heart, that’s been driving the entire Psalm. In verses 20-22 he reframes and reinterprets the emotion he feels in a more God-centered way. If he is going to hate, he wants to at least hate God’s enemies, not his own enemies. Finally, in verses 23-24 he surrenders his anger altogether, allowing God to change whatever needs to be changed in him.

There are three essential aspects in this process: admit the emotion, reframe it, and surrender it.

1. Admit the emotion

I just watched Inside Out over the weekend. In the movie (spoiler alert!), an 11 year-old girl named Riley moves across the country and finds herself miserable. Unfortunately, she feels like she has an obligation to be happy. Things get worse and worse. In anger and grief she can’t admit, she withdraws from her friends, her family, and, in a way, from herself. Eventually she shuts down her emotions completely.

At the cathartic moment of the film, she helplessly starts to cry. Her parents respond with understanding and sympathy. The message of the whole movie is that if we are to be emotionally healthy we have to accept sadness, and all our natural emotions, as essential parts of who we are. Repressing them is only bad for us in the long run.

In a similar way, I think part of the lesson of Psalm 139 is that we need to honestly express our emotions to God, even the negative ones.

Feeling our way through the Psalms

I’ve mused a lot about how to interpret the Psalms. I’ve come to think that they aren’t written so much to teach us what to believe as to shape our emotions. If that’s the case, then I should expect that there will be times when I feel the same as David did in Psalm 139, and this Psalm is supposed to mold my emotional responses much as it did David’s.

It’s not that I am obligated to feel anger or hatred, but that I inevitably will. When I do, I need to take those emotions to God. This Psalm is written to help me do that.

I said earlier that one response to imprecatory Psalms was to endorse the honesty of the Psalm but reject the attitudes expressed in it. My own view is that we should indeed endorse the honesty of the Psalm and follow David’s example when we feel the same emotions.

2. Reframe the emotion

Emotional expression can be unhealthy for us. Self-pity is a trap.  Exploding in anger is usually destructive to us and those around us. Resentful feelings very quickly turn into resentful attitudes. We want to process negative emotions, not necessarily vent them or wallow in them.

David didn’t just self-indulgently express his hatred; he sought to understand it in light of the truth of God. This involved a before and an after phase.

Preparing beforehand

Before David ever said anything about his anger, he spent 18 verses focusing on the goodness of God. After he had spent time meditating on God’s presence, protection, and intimate love, David was finally at the place where he could bring up his anger from a God-centered perspective.

When David bursts out:

O that You would slay the wicked, O God;
Depart from me, therefore, men of bloodshed,

we can see why the previous verses were important. He was surrounded by and threatened by violent men. He was probably afraid, perhaps unappreciated, definitely in emotional turmoil. But he was able to respond to the situation in a somewhat balanced way because he had spent time remembering that God was there with him, and had lovingly designed his future.

Reorienting our emotions afterwards

After David told God how he was feeling, he went on to say this:

For they speak against You wickedly,
And Your enemies take Your name in vain.

Do I not hate those who hate You, O LORD?
And do I not loathe those who rise up against You?

I hate them with the utmost hatred;
They have become my enemies.

I think what we are seeing here is David attempting to understand his anger in terms of God’s glory and agenda. It is as though he says, “Well, God, if I’m going to be angry about this, let me at least be angry on your behalf, not on my own. Let me hate your enemies rather than mine.”

I believe that every negative emotion can be either self-centered or God-centered. Reorienting something so that it is God-centered makes all the difference. Selfish fear paralyzes me, but fear of God frees me to act boldly. Selfish sorrow fills me with self-pity, but godly sorrow nurtures a richer sympathy for others. Selfish anger blinds me and leads me to attack people. Godly anger rouses me to courageously fight spiritual battles.

In this case, David shows us what God-centered hatred should look like – it focuses on whatever stands in the way of the honor and glory of God. That’s very different from verse 19 – it’s very different from hating those that attack my honor or threaten my safety. Compare John 2:13-17 and Psalm 69:9.

When I feel strong negative emotions, I want to learn to do what David did: prepare my heart first by meditating on God and his character, and then reinterpret the feelings in order to put God at the center of them.

3. Surrender the emotion

Just saying, “I am angry on God’s behalf” doesn’t mean my anger is godly. Some of the worst atrocities in history were committed by people who were acting on God’s behalf. It’s not enough for me to change my theory about my feelings to a God-centered one. I need to surrender my heart.

Once I’ve recast my negative emotions in terms of God’s agenda, if I am listening to the Holy Spirit, I’ll usually become aware of anything in me that isn’t quite right. I’ll become uneasy about the degree to which the flesh is involved. My rationalizations won’t be as convincing as they were. Whether or not I have qualms about my feelings, I need to move on to do what David did. I need to ask:

Search me, O God, and know my heart;
Try me and know my anxious thoughts;

And see if there be any hurtful way in me,
And lead me in the everlasting way.

In fact, the Psalm started with a similar prayer:

O LORD, You have searched me and known me.

You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
You understand my thought from afar.

You scrutinize my path and my lying down,
And are intimately acquainted with all my ways.

David knew from the beginning of the Psalm where this was headed – he wanted God to sort out his feelings and show him what to repent of.

Surrendering the emotion doesn’t mean that we stop feeling it. (The emotion might even be one God is inviting us to feel.) What it does mean, though, is that we surrender to God the right to feel it. We ask God to change our hearts. Anger, hatred, and similar emotions are tremendously self-justifying. Surrendering them to God means letting him strip us of our illusions about what we are feeling.


Some of what I wrote above was first suggested to me by our church’s worship pastor. Thanks, Aaron! I appreciate your insight!

Do any of the rest of you have thoughts you want to pass on? Please comment below. I look forward to seeing what people have to say.

Lust and adultery in one’s heart (Matthew 5:28)

I am dismayed to see that NASB has changed their translation of Matthew 5:28. I’m pretty sure it used to say that everyone who looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. It now says “everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her”. That’s very different. The second makes it sound as though if we look at a woman and lust spontaneously arises, that is adultery in the heart. The first implies that it is looking at a woman in order to lust – for the purpose of lust – that is adulterous. That is the real meaning, in my opinion. I like ESV’s translation: “everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart”.

I have three reasons for thinking the intent-based meaning is the correct one. First, the Greek preposition is closer to “to” than to “with” (I think?). Second, the phrase “has already committed adultery in his heart” points to the sin having happened before he looked. Third, this interpretation makes sense of the distinction between temptation and sin, without surrendering the important idea that attitudes and intentions can be sinful even without our acting on them.

Counter culture week 3

In Counter Culture week 1, I liked the details in David Platt’s teaching, but felt that the overall tone and direction was off. In Counter Culture week 2, I liked the overall tone and direction of his teaching, but felt some of the details were wrong. In week 3, I agreed with almost everything. The overall subject of the week was the value of human life. The two subtopics were abortion and sexual exploitation. In covering the topic of sexual exploitation he spent the most time talking about sex slavery, but then segued briefly to pornography, urging us to consider the two as connected and to repent of any involvement with pornography in our own lives. In the study guide, the final day focused on the complete forgiveness we have in Christ.

He asked us to put together a statement of how we see the gospel as being connected to abortion and to sexual exploitation. My answers are here: the gospel and abortion, the gospel and sexual exploitation.

The gospel and abortion

[David Platt, in the Counter Culture Bible study, asked us to state how we see the gospel related to the issue of abortion. In what follows, I draw on some of the points he made in the associated study guide.]

The image of God

Humans are unique because we are created in the image of God.

In Genesis 1, God commanded the various elements: “Let there be light”, “Let there be an expanse in the midst of the waters”, “Let the waters below the heavens be gathered into one place”, “Let the earth sprout vegetation”, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens”, “Let the waters teem with swarms of living creatures”, and “Let the earth bring forth living creatures”. When it came to mankind, the pattern changed. God said, “Let Us make man in Our image”. Rather than commanding something to come into existence, or commanding one thing to bring another thing into existence, he “commanded” himself (!) to do the creating, and he himself is the one from whom man came.

Also, in Genesis 1, God created the various creatures to bring forth “after their kind” but of man it is said: “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness … God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” The constant repetition of our creation in the image of God is meant to emphasize it. Unlike any other creature, we are uniquely made to reflect the nature of God.

In Genesis 2:7, it further emphasizes God’s unique involvement in our creation, saying that he formed (or “fashioned”) man from the dust of the ground, and breathed his own breath into him to give him life.

In Genesis 1, mankind is given the commission to multiply throughout the earth and take charge of it. They are given every plant for food. After the fall, things change. The earth becomes hostile to man, man becomes hostile to man, God judges the world through the flood, and Noah starts over. In Genesis 9:1-7, God renews his charge to mankind, but this time he takes into account the fallenness of the world.

And God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth. The fear of you and the terror of you will be on every beast of the earth and on every bird of the sky; with everything that creeps on the ground, and all the fish of the sea, into your hand they are given. Every moving thing that is alive shall be food for you; I give all to you, as I gave the green plant. Only you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. Surely I will require your lifeblood; from every beast I will require it. And from every man, from every man’s brother I will require the life of man.


Whoever sheds man’s blood,

By man his blood shall be shed,

For in the image of God

He made man.


As for you, be fruitful and multiply;

Populate the earth abundantly and multiply in it.”

Again, mankind is told to fill the earth. Again they are given dominion over it. This time they are promised that the rest of the creatures will fear them – a promise that is only necessary in a fallen world. This time they are given the right to kill and eat any living creature, except for humans.

However, they are told not to kill humans. The reason given is because humans, unlike other creatures, are made in the image of God. We have dominion over the whole earth, to do what we want with it – but God reserves the right to decide which humans live or die. Perhaps these verses implicitly grant permission for capital punishment, but when it comes to the innocent, God alone has the right to decide when life ends. The point is this: the Bible reserves the right over life and death for God alone, and the reason it does so is because we are created in God’s image. We are God’s workmanship, and no one has the right to destroy that.

Psalm 139:13-16 says:

For You formed my inward parts;

You wove me in my mother’s womb.


I will give thanks to You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made;

Wonderful are Your works,

And my soul knows it very well.


My frame was not hidden from You,

When I was made in secret,

And skillfully wrought in the depths of the earth;


Your eyes have seen my unformed substance;

And in Your book were all written

The days that were ordained for me,

When as yet there was not one of them.


I am convinced by Luke 1:41-43 that the baby in the womb is a living human being, but I don’t think the verses here speak directly to that question. At least the final verse does not: it talks about the days ordained “when as yet there was not one of them”. If verse 16 were talking about the fetus, it would imply that none of his days had occurred yet, and so imply that he was not living yet.  I don’t think that’s what it means though; it is speaking, rather, of God’s foreknowledge of the Psalmist even before he existed at all. Jeremiah 1:5 is similar.

This verse isn’t focusing on what kind of thing the unborn baby is; it’s focusing on how far back God’s creating and fashioning activity extends. It says that God planned us from before we even existed, and was involved in crafting our physical being from the moment it began.

So the question isn’t when we first became alive or first became human or first became a person. It certainly isn’t when we first became viable or when we began to have a heartbeat or a brain wave or to feel pain. The question is, when did we first become the workmanship of God, made in his image? The answer is: from the very beginning.  By the time we know there is a baby there, it is already being fashioned by God and we are already forbidden to exercise our “dominion” to end its life.

The value of life

In my philosophy classes, students often discuss the morality of abortion. I’m dismayed by how frequently they assume that if a baby is going to be born into poverty, it would be a kindness to kill him instead. I often ask if they’d be willing to kill a two-year old for the same reason; many say No, but a sizable number say Yes, they would.

I’ve mulled this over for a couple of years now, and I have come to realize that it is vitally important to me that the value of someone’s life has nothing to do with how much they are suffering. Being unhappy does not diminish a person’s worth!

Jesus suffered greatly in Gethsemane and on the cross, but his life on earth was as valuable as it is possible to be. Because he suffered for love’s sake, and completely fulfilled the Father’s call for his life on earth, his life was full of meaning and purpose and majesty.

What has happened is that my students are assuming that the only value someone’s life has is that it makes him happy. When he is unhappy, then it is not worth so much anymore. What an impoverished view of human worth!

It is true that we often identify value with success. Those who are rich, happy, and influential somehow seem more worthwhile than those for whom the opposite is true. The message of Jesus’ ministry, and especially of the Beatitudes, is contrary to this. It is those who suffer, who are powerless, who are vulnerable, that are the Blessed.

I believe abortion is a tragedy, but I am not convinced at this point that it is my role as a Christian to wage a political war against it. (I’m not saying it’s not your role – I’m just not convinced it’s mine.) What I do want to stand for, though, is the truth of the enormous value of human life. In the course of debating abortion and euthanasia and evolution and many other things, we have slipped into thinking of human lives as commodities that can be assessed and then itemized in a cost-benefit analysis. The truth is that our lives have transcendent value. We are magically, mystically wonderful beings! Not because of what we do for others, and not because our lives feel good to us, but because of how God sees us and His creatorship and ownership of us. That is at the core of the gospel. You are loved; you are planned; you are called. These are at the heart of the gospel message. You matter, not because of you’ve done, and not because of how you feel about yourself, but because of your part in God’s plan.

I want people to see the baby in the womb that way, but I also want them to see themselves that way. The gospel is the story that God is telling about our lives, and understanding and receiving it lets us step into that story.

Lust for lust

[David Platt, in the Counter Culture Bible study, asked us to write a statement about how the gospel relates to the issue of sexual exploitation. Here is my statement.]

Our culture idolizes sensuality. That means it idolizes sexual desire.

It doesn’t idolize sexual climax, but sexual desire – lust. The goal isn’t merely to have sexual desire satisfied, it’s to have it stirred up as much as possible first. Pornography isn’t about making sexual satisfaction more likely, it’s about making sexual desire more intense beforehand.

Sensuality is a focus on the body. When we are sensually driven, we tend to objectify other people, but we also objectify ourselves. We see ourselves – and seek to see ourselves – as physical machines that cannot help but follow their programming. We hide from our essential rationality and freedom to choose what to value, and pretend we have no choice at all. Think of how many times sensual lyrics or prose focus on how someone is helpless to resist their urges. Why? Because it somehow increases the sexual thrill to think of ourselves as controlled by our desires. We want to be controlled by lust, and it helps us feel the thrill more intensely if we imagine that we are.

Satan uses our desires to tempt us. Most of the time, having a desire is not itself a bad thing. We only sin because we seek to meet our own desires in our own way instead of taking them to God. We legitimately wish we could have something, so we steal it. We want praise, so we brag or otherwise seek our own glory. Initially, sexual sin is similar. Someone has a normal, natural sexual desire and it leads them to act it out inappropriately – they get a little too physical in a relationship with someone, or they look at pornography, or something.

When we begin to pursue sexual desire itself, as an idol, we move into a completely different kind of desire, one which is in and of itself unhealthy. It is not something we can look to God to satisfy, because the desire itself (the lust for lust) is unhealthy. Proverbs 30:15, 16 describes that kind of desire this way:

The leech has two daughters,

“Give,” “Give.”

There are three things that will not be satisfied,

Four that will not say, “Enough”:

Sheol, and the barren womb,

Earth that is never satisfied with water,

And fire that never says, “Enough.”

The point is that this kind of desire is by nature insatiable. It cannot be satisfied, even by God, because it is in its very nature to deny any permanent satisfaction. All it does is say “Give, give”. It is like the grave, in that its recurrence is as inevitable as death (no one will ever say, “Well, he lived, because the grave was full.”) It is like the barren womb, in that no matter what is given to it, it will never have what it needs. It is like the desert earth, which is unable to absorb the water that lands on it, and even if it did, is so immense that there would never be enough. Especially, it is like fire, which only burns hotter the more you feed it.

Feeding sensual desire will lessen it, temporarily. Images and fantasies that stirred it up become commonplace, and fail to fan it. But the desire for desire just continues to burn hotter, and more frustratingly. Eventually, something taboo becomes fuel for the fire. Its forbidden nature gives it a little more intensity, a kind of kick, which makes the thrill return. This explains why a true pornography addiction tends to escalate to harder and harder forms. What was taboo is commonplace after a while, and the addict needs something still more forbidden to keep stoking the fire.

The thing about sensuality is that, paradoxically, it’s a spiritual thing. The thrill of the lust gives us a sense of meaning, of transcendence. It makes all of life glow with intensity and purpose.  It becomes a substitute for real spirituality, for a real connection with God. It is no coincidence that so much idol worship in the Old Testament involved lots of sex.

The difference between the spirituality of the sensual and the spirituality that comes from God is twofold. First, the spirituality of the sensual makes everything seem transcendent when it is bathed in lust, but when the lust dissipates, everything seems meaningless. The more a sensual addict finds his meaning in lust, the less he can find any satisfaction in regular life. So as the thrills get weirder and weirder, ordinary living becomes bleaker and bleaker. True spirituality is completely different. When God breaks through our lives with the supernatural, it doesn’t leave the ordinary days emptier afterwards; it enriches them a little.

The other difference is the one I mentioned at the beginning: that sensuality reduces us to merely physical creatures. We come to identify ourselves with our physical desires. We cannot imagine anything else being real. But true spirituality awakens our sense of ourselves as spiritual people, for whom the body is only one factor of being alive. We become aware of our ability to reason, to value, to empathize, to dream, and especially to responsibly choose. We are transcendent, not through our physical lusts, but by finding that they are irrelevant to who we are most deeply.

Because there is no way for God to righteously satisfy the desire for sexual desire, though, those Christians who are trying to seek God for deliverance from sensual addiction will find themselves feeling as though life is gray and bleak and as though they themselves have nothing inside that can ever respond to anything but the physical. They may accept that there are serious consequences to a sensual life, but they will have trouble believing that there is any joy to be had in living a non-sensual one. They need to be encouraged that the spiritual joy that comes from walking with God will eventually become evident, and that when it does, it will feel as much a part of them as sensuality ever did, but in a way that enriches the rest of their lives instead of impoverishing it.

Anyway, how does the gospel relate to all this? The same way as it relates to abortion. It shows us that we are created in the image of God, that we transcend the physical realm, that we are anything but ordinary, and that our lives are tinged with the supernatural. When we come to Christ, we are called to more than enslavement to our physical desires, and have a higher purpose than sensuality and lust.

Jesus loves and accepts us, but the exciting thing is that he doesn’t see us as we think of ourselves. He sees us as we can truly be, in him. The gospel is a message of transformation. It’s an invitation to be born again, to be born of spirit, to become the kind of person who is far more than we ever dreamed. It’s an invitation to step into a new, transcendent identity as a child of God.

Evaluation of counter culture week 2

I liked this week. I’m finding right now that I don’t want to be critical at all, but since I’m supposed to be evaluating honestly, I suppose I’d better at least mention the concerns I had. Afterwards I’ll move on to what I learned from the week.


In the first week, I thought that the author was mostly accurate, but the basic message was disappointingly business-as-usual for me. In the second week, it was the opposite. He has a strong message here that I loved hearing, but he seems to be one-sided in presenting it. He is accurate when it comes to expositing individual Scripture passages, but I’m not sure he’s worked out how they are to be balanced with other Scriptures that point in the opposite direction.

That’s OK; I can balance things myself. What I need is to hear someone make a strong case for things I may not have sufficiently considered. That’s what this week did.

The other thing I disagreed with this week was that the study guide was pushy about how to apply the Biblical principles involved. It kept giving very specific steps we might take to show our love for the poor and then asking us to commit to doing it, right here!, right now! I found myself answering No a lot. No, I don’t think that’s wrong. No, I don’t think that’s important. No, I’m not going to be doing that. We all need to obey the Scriptures, but the Holy Spirit may lead us to do so in very different ways.

By the way, as a young Christian I heard a similar message from Think of your Future by William MacDonald, and I seem to recall that it also suffered from being a little too pushy and a little out of balance. Nonetheless it’s something I’m glad I read and took to heart as a young college student. I recommend it if you want to read another strong call to abandon possessions and live for the kingdom alone.

What I learned

The primary message of the week was to encourage us to be aware of the danger of the desire for material possessions, and to be willing to live more simply and give more generously to the poor. It encouraged me to do a lot of thinking about poverty and wealth in Scripture, and it’s been fruitful. Additionally, our pastor preached a moving couple of sermons on Sunday about truly feeling compassion for people around us. The Holy Spirit’s been using both of those things together to give me slightly clearer direction on how I should focus my life and ministry this year. I’m still letting it simmer for now, though, so I don’t think I can get any more specific than that.

Anyway, one of the last questions in the study guide for this week said this: “How does the gospel shape what you believe about wealth and poverty? Write a simple statement of your views on material possessions.”

I suspect that by “simple” they meant a sentence or two, but I took the prompt as an opportunity to systematize everything I’ve been thinking about from this week, inspired and guided by Platt’s teachings among other things. I’m putting it in a separate post so I can link to it by itself later if I want to. Here it is.

Wealth, poverty, and the gospel

[The Counter Culture Bible study I was in prompted me to work out my position on the relationship between wealth, poverty, and the gospel. Here it is.]

In a perfect world, God would provide everything anyone needed. Some of that would come through hard work on their part which would, however, be a joy for them. Some would also come through people giving to each other, which would also be done joyfully (no one would have to worry that they were being taken advantage of).

In a fallen world, people suffer a lack of provision due to factors that fall into roughly three different categories. First, we sometimes suffer because of the direct consequences of our own sin. Either the sin has natural and direct consequences financially (e.g., being lazy or spendthrift), or God uses financial deprivation to get our attention so that we will repent of some more general sin. Second, other people’s sin: The world around us is filled with people who compete for resources, cheat people out of things, coerce them based on their need, corrupt justice for the sake of the rich while marginalizing the poor, and refuse to give people what they need. Third, circumstances brought on by nature itself (e.g., drought) or as an indirect consequence of sin (e.g., wars) keep people poor and downtrodden.

When Israel began, God did two things to alleviate poverty. First, he gave them a system of laws that were a good guide to implementing a financially just society. Second, he promised to bless them with material prosperity as a nation if they obeyed. In the early OT Scriptures, then, poverty was painted as a judgment of God and wealth as a sign of his favor.  This was corporate, though; individual godly men and women still suffered from national judgments.

Later, as Israel’s dreams fell apart – as she fell into spiritual decline, and found herself militarily weak or even conquered – the focus of the Scriptures shifted to living in a hostile world. In the “literature of poverty” we get a picture of godly people who are nonetheless poor, while the wicked are rich. This image of being sufferers among powerful and ruthless oppressors became one of the primary ways to think about living a godly life.

At the same time, there were lots of prophecies about the coming kingdom when everything would be different. In that day, God’s blessings would be restored, and the poor and downtrodden would finally experience the prosperity and freedom that they currently lacked.

In the early part of Jesus’ ministry, he proclaimed the coming of the kingdom as good news for the poor and downtrodden — the time was just about here when they would finally be rewarded for their patient, long-suffering faith. However, as the gospels progressed, the emphasis shifted to the spiritual poverty we all have, and our desperate need for forgiveness, which Jesus offers.

In the epistles, the church continued to be seen as the suffering poor in a hostile world, and it continued to announce with joy the coming of the kingdom on earth. At the same time, there was a new emphasis: that as followers of Christ indwelt by the Holy Spirit, we are already incredibly rich in spiritual blessings. The gospel was an invitation not only to hope in the return of Christ in the future but to participate in the inward wealth of his grace today.

The church sought to follow in Jesus’ footsteps by suffering poverty and persecution in solidarity with Jesus himself, by sacrificing to help each other in loyal brotherly love, by generously giving their time and material possessions as an expression of their great joy in the spiritual riches they’d been given, and by proclaiming all these things as signs of the gospel of Jesus and the kingdom.

As Christians, I believe our view of material possessions should be similar. We should realize that

  • God’s ultimate ideal is prosperity and peace and freedom for all.
  • In our fallen world, that is thwarted by individual sin, by interpersonal sin, and by circumstances. (This applies to capitalism and socialism alike – indeed, to every economic system.)
  • Jesus is coming back soon to right wrongs and restore things to God’s ideal.

As we present the gospel or serve the poor, we should:

  • proclaim with joy the kingdom that is coming
  • sacrifice willingly for our brothers and sisters in Christ
  • give generously and humbly wherever we can because we have been so richly blessed spiritually
  • accept suffering and persecution willingly because it lets us walk with Christ in his sufferings

This will lead to the unique combination of joy, suffering, and generosity that was exemplified by the Macedonian church in 2 Corinthians 8:1-5, of whom it is said that “their abundance of joy and their deep poverty overflowed in the wealth of their liberality.”

Caring for the poor (Counter Culture week 2)

As more food for thought about caring for the poor, I present these snippets from a book review I wrote for myself about 15 years ago.

The book is Remembering the Poor by Dieter Georgi. Most of it was spent in working out the chronology of the collections for the Jerusalem believers described in passages like Acts 11:27-30 and 2 Corinthians 8-9. From what I can recall, I strongly disagreed with its basic standpoint on the inspiration of Scripture: It discounted the Acts chronology because it assumed that Acts was primarily propaganda written by Luke hide the truth of the division between Paul and the Jerusalem church. The book had some interesting reflections on the poor, though, especially in the afterword. After I had finished reading it, I wrote the following summary.

1. Community

Just as Man and Woman in Christ [a book I definitely do recommend] encourages us to create a space within church life in which we can obey the instructions for men’s and women’s roles, so we need to create a space within the church in which we can model a Christian economic structure. The point is not just that we need to use Christian principles in our financial dealings in the world, but that in the church itself we can model things which would not be prudent in the world. We can live out a sort of utopian system (in a way) which shows how things may one day be when Christ comes back.  We can do things that ordinary capitalism and communism can’t afford to do, because they are based on the assumption of a world of sinners, and the church on the other hand can assume the presence of a great many truly redeemed people.

We need to build a “world within a world”, a system within the world’s economic system.  We need a way to be able to live prudently within the system around us, being wise enough not to be taken advantage of, while still discovering a whole new economic system within the family

2. Poverty before God.

This point is mainly theoretical, but critical nonetheless. We need to become saturated with the truth that we are impoverished before God spiritually, intellectually, and in every way.  We live every day only by the grace of God. All our riches are illusory, in a very real sense.  When we begin to realize this truth fully, it will affect every aspect of our financial value system.  For instance, we will no longer get our security or our identity from riches

3. A voluntary base

We must trust the Spirit to lead people within the church to do as they should with their money, rather than coercing them in any way.  The world’s systems can’t do this – they have to rely on force and law to get people to do right with their wealth.  But we need to replace almost every worldly system with one that is trust-based — taxes with voluntary tithes, welfare from the government (tax-based) with voluntary giving, and so on. Even interest and credit and banks and insurance all look different when they are trust-based.

Both communism and capitalism have as primary principles that you must count on people acting in their own self-interest; this is based on the opposite principle.

4. Valuing giving more than having

We must reverse our value system so that our joy in what we have comes from being able to give.  We need to really believe that it is more blessed to give than to receive – not just to think that it is our duty to give, but to see it as a gift from God.

Let me phrase that more strongly – we need to see that having the opportunity to meet someone else’s needs is a gift from God to us.

Again, this is something we need to work through until our entire value system has been revamped. In the context of a community of givers, we should be able to work this out so that people aren’t foolish or taken advantage of.

5. Honor the poor

We need to value the poor for several reasons.  The minor one is that the poor give us an opportunity to give. Another is that the poor through their gratitude to God (not a condescending thing) bring glory to Him.  Third, the poor are God’s way of reminding us of our imporverishedness before Him.  Fourth, the poor are examples of faith and patience to us. Etc.

The idea is to replace condescension or feeling condescended to with this set of ideas. We need to become convinced that the poor in the church are God’s gift to the rest of the church. We need to help the poor feel the same way about themselves.

This applies to other poverty besides financial poverty – those who are physically disabled, old and retired, etc.