The beatitudes are not virtues (part 1)

A couple of weeks ago a visiting preacher taught on the beatitudes:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

He had some interesting insights, but he taught the traditional view of the beatitudes as virtues, as Christlike character traits we should develop. I think that is not technically correct.

The beatitudes as virtues

There are eight blessed things mentioned in the verses; being poor in spirit, mourning, meekness, etc. When these are understood to be attitudes or Christlike qualities, there are several consequences.

1. It affects how we interpret the meaning of the eight things.

Four of the eight — meekness, mercy, purity of heart, peacemaking — do seem like virtues, but the other four are a little harder to interpret that way. As a result, they have to be reinterpreted slightly. Being poor in spirit is usually taken to mean humility; mourning to mean a repentant heart; hunger and thirst for righteousness to mean a desire to be holy; and being persecuted to mean a willingness to endure persecution.

2. It puts the emphasis on how we can develop these qualities.

Our visiting speaker stressed that we cannot attain these qualities on our own, but only by the power and work of the Holy Spirit in us; nonetheless, he assumed that the point of the passage is that we need to grow in them somehow.

3. It affects how we interpret the benediction (“Blessed are”) pronounced on each of the eight.

It becomes natural to hear “Blessed are …” as an expression of God’s approval of these qualities. He favors the poor in spirit because of their humility, the mourners because of their repentant hearts, and so on. The promise in each verse is a reward corresponding to the virtue. The merciful will receive mercy as a reward for their having been merciful, and so on for the other verses.

The beatitudes as descriptions of oppression

I believe a better way to look at the same verses is to see them as describing ways that people suffer oppression. The easiest way to understand this is to start by considering the parallel passage in Luke. Here are the beatitudes as recorded in Luke:

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who hunger now, for you shall be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh.
Blessed are you when men hate you, and ostracize you, and insult you, and scorn your name as evil, for the sake of the Son of Man … (Luke 6:20-22, NASB)

Why are Luke’s and Matthew’s versions different? One possible reason is simply that Jesus preached the same thing in slightly different ways on different occasions. Then Matthew and Luke each selected for his own narrative the version that fit best with the particular points he was trying to make as an author.

The beatitudes in Luke sound a lot less “spiritual” than those in Matthew. The meek, merciful, pure and heart, and peacemakers are not even mentioned in Luke. The remaining four are poverty, hunger, weeping, and persecution, all of which are things that just happen to people, not virtues that they develop. Matthew’s version turns poverty into poor in spirit, but for Luke it’s just plain poor. Matthew’s version talks about being hungry for righteousness, but Luke’s hungry people just want food. Matthew may be talking about how to be a good person. Luke is simply describing what it’s like to suffer.

That makes it a little confusing that Luke says the poor are blessed (and even more confusing a little later when he pronounces woe to the rich). Does Luke mean that somehow being downtrodden makes us better people automatically?

Our speaker mentioned that there are some churches which seem to think there is something extra spiritual about being poor. On the basis of these verses in Luke they encourage some believers to take a vow of poverty. Our speaker disagreed with that perspective. He argued that that is why Matthew added “in spirit”. He was saying that having an attitude of poverty (i.e., being humble) is the real point.

I also disagree with that perspective, but I don’t think Jesus was talking about being humble (not in Luke, for sure). He was talking about having no money.

The point is, though, Jesus also wasn’t telling them how to be better people, he was encouraging them to have hope. Listen to another difference between Matthew and Luke: in Matthew, Jesus says “Blessed are those who are poor in spirit …”, announcing a general spiritual principle. In Luke, Jesus says directly to his audience, “Blessed are you poor … “, a specific promise to a specific audience. They didn’t need to work at being oppressed! They needed to learn to trust God in the midst of their oppression. That’s the point in Luke.

In the next part I will talk about reconciling the Matthew passage with the Luke passage.


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Wrangling about words

The Bible passage I read today said this:

Remind them of these things, and solemnly charge them in the presence of God not to wrangle about words, which is useless and leads to the ruin of the hearers.

Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth.

But avoid worldly and empty chatter, for it will lead to further ungodliness, and their talk with spread like gangrene.  (2 Tim 2:14-18a, NASB)

What is “wrangling about words”?

I always have a little trouble with these verses. For me, “wrangling about words” is important if you want to get things right. People so often talk past each other when they argue, and taking the time to nail down what people really mean by what they say can bring lots of clarity. That’s one reason I love philosophy – people in that field are so careful to get even the subtleties of their definitions right.

On the other hand, not everyone is like me in this. A friend told me once, “Kevin, if there were a fire, and a river nearby, I’d just grab the biggest bucket I could find and start hauling water. You are the kind of guy who’d spend lots of time trying to find a bucket without any holes in it.” In some situations, and for some people, worrying about details seems useless because it’s impractical. We need to get on with the important stuff and not worry about getting it all exactly right. Whose approach is better? I think it depends on one’s gifts and calling.

However, I don’t think that’s what Paul meant by “wrangling about words”.  I think Paul valued accuracy, and knew that being accurate was an important part of Timothy’s call. That’s why, in the next verse, he balances what he’s just said by telling Timothy to “accurately handl[e] the word of truth”. Paul is saying, “Now, Timothy, don’t misunderstand me. I still want you to be very careful to be accurate in everything you say. That still matters, and it even matters to God Himself.”

Sound doctrine

Perhaps Paul isn’t worried about wrangling about words when it is an attempt to get at the truth, but only when it is heretical. In the verses just after these, he mentions two men who had been spreading a false teaching about the resurrection, which had “upset the faith of some”. Then he emphasizes that God knows who the true Christians are; apparently, the doctrine they were spreading was far enough from the truth that Paul didn’t even count them as fellow believers.

Many other passages emphasize the critical responsibility of a pastor to safeguard the doctrine of the church. It would make sense that this passage is addressing the same need. Paul’s concern is not with chatter per se, but “worldly” chatter that leads to ungodliness. Perhaps, too, he is not concerned with just any old word-wrangling but rather the specific fruitless heretical arguments that were going on in Ephesus at that point. Letting people play around with heresy, Paul says, is going to destroy people’s faith and lives. If left unchecked, it “will spread like gangrene”.

This makes sense, but I have still have questions. Timothy isn’t just told to watch his own speech, but to stop others from saying what they do. Contrast this quote from John Milton, just posted to facebook by a friend:

‎”Give me liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.” -John Milton

I sometimes disagree with the official doctrines of the churches I belong to. I don’t want anyone telling me I can’t speak up about it.The bill-of-rights-loving part of me rankles at these verses slightly. Am I wrong in that? I don’t know; maybe I am.

Our pastor makes a strong distinction between what he allows to be taught in the church officially and what people say on their own time. Maybe that’s the meaning here – that Timothy is supposed to prevent heretical teachings from being spread during official church meetings, but what they say privately is not his concern.

The reason I don’t find that answer completely satisfying is verse 16. There Paul says to avoid “worldly and empty chatter”, which doesn’t seem like he is talking about official doctrine. He seems to be as concerned about daily talk as about formal teaching. (On the other hand, Timothy is only told to avoid the chatter, not to stop other people from doing it, so maybe there is something to the distinction after all.)

Still, I don’t think this passage can mean, “stop people from raising any questions about doctrine, before it spreads and shakes people’s faith”. The rest of the Bible doesn’t present church leaders as holding ultimate doctrinal authority. There are lots and lots of examples in Scripture of people who missed what God was saying because they were unthinkingly following the religious traditions of their day. Whatever the meaning here, it must be consistent with the responsibility of individual believers to follow God as they understand him.

Carelessness

I’m inclined to think there is a difference between a believer wrestling to understand and rethink a core doctrine of the faith and someone carelessly “wrangling about words” out of intellectual arrogance. “Wrangling” makes it sound like people were more interested in winning arguments than in finding what was really true. “Empty chatter” implies a careless disregard for the consequences of what one says.

Timothy was told to charge people not to wrangle about words “in the presence of God”, because they needed to see that they were responsible before God for whatever they said. Similarly, he was told to be diligent as a workman in accurately handling the word of truth, so that he would be approved to God. Each bolded phrase drives home the contrast with being sloppy or careless in how we talk about the truths of the gospel.

Fruit

Maybe Paul’s point is even more specifically that we need to measure what we say by its fruit. Is it helpful or harmful to other people’s lives and spiritual growth?  In this passage, Timothy is warned against something that is “useless, and leads to the ruin of the hearers”, that “will lead to further ungodliness”, and that had already “upset the faith of some” (verse 18).

Even if something is true, it doesn’t mean it should come out of my mouth. There are times and places for saying things.  Sometimes if I want to “speak the truth in love” it’ll mean that right at this moment I shouldn’t speak at all. Even if what I wanted to say is technically accurate.

Of course, when the time is right, there’s nothing wrong with confrontation. Timothy was told to be confrontational in this very passage, but in a way that would build believers up instead of tearing them down.

In my case

I’m still not completely sure what this means, but I think I know what it means for me.

I sincerely want God to use what I say to encourage others. I also know, though, that I love to talk. I can all too easily assume that my thinking something gives me the right to say it. What I take from this passage personally is a renewed sense that I am responsible before God for whatever I say, whether in my blog, or as a teacher at a community college, or wherever.

My other devotional readings this week reminded me of the importance of listening to God. Without getting into what it means to for us to say we think God spoke to us (some other blog some other day!) the point stands: if I am too busy talking for God, can I be really listening to Him? Before I posted this, I spent time praying through it, asking God to show me if I was saying things irresponsibly. Could I still have gotten it wrong? Probably, but at least my intentions were good!

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More about entanglements

Read the initial post first or this one won’t make sense.

There I said:

He’s pushed me to think of my secular job as being part of His calling for me and to care more about succeeding at it. He’s drawing me to pray more as I prepare classes, to ask His blessing on my students’ attitudes and understanding.

That’s not quite right. That is being entangled. What I should have said is that He’s pushed me to think of my secular job as being part of His calling for me, to discover its purpose, and to care more about seeing that purpose fulfilled.

Here’s the difference: I teach because I want my students to learn. I need to care about whether they learn. I shouldn’t be worried about whether they learn because of me, or in spite of me. It’s not my personal success that matters, it’s whether they learn. That’s why I pray for my students’ attitudes and understanding rather than for my own teaching. I think it was John Hopler, years ago, who said “Pray for the goal of the teaching more than the teaching”.

But that would put me in danger of becoming emotionally detached again. So having made that modification, I also need to add, “I think it pleases Him when I throw myself wholeheartedly into fulfilling that purpose with the confident expectation that He can use me.

Here’s the new difference: Although I care about seeing the students learn more than I care about having to be the one God uses to accomplish it, yet I also realize that God loves it when I try hard and trust hard to accomplish it.

Then if I succeed, great! If I fail personally, but God blesses the students around me anyway, also great! I know that my effort and heart was valued by him, even if He chose not to use me directly.

What if I fail personally and the students don’t learn? I want to say, “Great again! God is still in charge and I can trust Him to be working.” But, for me, that is another way of being emotionally detached from my students.

Instead, I think a better answer is to seek God more about it. That means first of all to let myself be a little sad that the students aren’t learning. Second, it means to wait on God in prayer, asking God what happened. Specifically I ask:

  • Did I set my goals too high? Was I aiming at something that wasn’t realistic, that wasn’t really His purpose for the job?
  • Is God trying to teach me something? Do I need to repent of something, or do I need to work at improving something in how I teach?
  • Are the students learning in ways that are hidden from me? Is God blessing in ways that I don’t see?
Finally, I can ask God to help me start over again, with a clear conscience and with renewed faith and joy.

Yet those who wait for the LORD
Will gain new strength;
They will mount up with wings like eagles,
They will run and not get tired,
They will walk and not become weary.  — Isaiah 40:31, NASB

Anyway, I guess this is the new version:

He’s pushed me to think of my secular job as being part of His calling for me, to discover its purpose, and to care more about seeing that purpose fulfilled. I think it pleases Him when I throw myself wholeheartedly into fulfilling that purpose with the confident expectation that He can use me. He’s drawing me to pray more as I prepare classes, to ask His blessing on my students’ attitudes and understanding.

I expect I’ll change my mind about it again tomorrow! 🙂 I think God keeps me thinking about this because I’m not very consistent in doing it yet.

 

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Entanglements

In 2 Timothy 2:3-4, Paul tells Timothy:

Suffer hardship with me, as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No soldier in active service entangles himself in the affairs of everyday life, so that he may please the one who enlisted him as a soldier.

What does it mean to be entangled in the affairs of everyday life? I’ve been thinking a lot about that lately, and I’m not sure I’ve figured it out yet.

I’m sure it means more than simply “don’t sin”. While sin entangles, I think Paul is saying here that we can be entangled in daily life even when what we are doing is morally acceptable.

What makes this tricky is that over the last couple of years God has convicted me of being emotionally disengaged from everyday life. He’s pushed me to think of my secular job as being part of His calling for me and to care more about succeeding at it. He’s drawing me to pray more as I prepare classes, to ask His blessing on my students’ attitudes and understanding.

But now here is this verse which seems to say, Don’t get too emotionally entangled in everyday life, or you’ll forget your spiritual calling. So I’m trying to work out the balance between emotional disengagement from life and entanglement in it.

(More about entanglements, here)

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Interpreting the Psalms – a quick note

A couple of years ago I did a study on Psalm 117:

Praise the LORD, all nations;
Laud him, all peoples!
For his lovingkindness is great toward us,
And the truth of the LORD is everlasting.
Praise the LORD!

Sometime I’ll blog about my conclusions. In the meantime, let me make a very quick point.

Different parts of Scripture belong to different literary genres. The genre of a passage strongly affects how we are supposed to interpret it, primarily because the genre so strongly determines the purpose of the passage.

Lots of Scripture is written to inform its readers or engage them intellectually. In Romans, for example, Paul is explaining concepts to his audience and pressing home the logical conclusions they lead to. To get the meaning of Romans, it is particularly important to figure out what theological claims Paul was making, and then follow the thread of each argument.

Some Scripture is written to exhort its readers. For example, James is written not primarily to explain concepts but to call people to act. The exhortation involves information, but until we understand how its original audience would have heard it as exhortation we don’t understand it’s central meaning.

Psalm 117 is written to be expressed. It was given to Israel to be sung in worship. There is information (“His lovingkindness is great toward us”) and exhortation (“Praise the LORD”) but its primary meaning is not what is said to the Israelites, but what they were expressing for themselves as they repeated it in song. So to fully understand Psalm 117, we have to think about what it would mean to express it, not what it would mean to hear it expressed.

I suspect this is true for many of the Psalms.

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Philippians 4:6-7

I’ve misunderstood these verses for years:

Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. — Philippians 4:6-7, NASB.

I used to parse this passage as a twofold condition followed by a promise. The condition has a negative part (be anxious for nothing) and a positive part (pray about everything), sort of like those “put off … put on” passages elsewhere in Scripture. Put off worry and put on a good prayer life. The promise is that the peace of God will guard our hearts and minds.

The problem with this interpretation is simply that, if the condition  is to stop worrying, then what is the peace of God guarding our hearts and minds from? We’ve already become free from worry by our own will power. As a result, I used to have this complicated scheme for distinguishing between anxiety, which we were responsible to set aside, and fear, against which God’s peace would guard us.

Now I think a more natural way to read it is to assume there is a command/invitation to live free from worry, followed by a two-fold explanation of how to do so. Our part is to bring everything to God in prayer. God’s part is to give us a peace beyond understanding. By our prayers and God’s peace we can live free from anxiety.

I’m pretty sure people have tried to tell me this before, and I just didn’t get it.

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I was trying to figure out how I ever got started distinguishing between “be anxious for nothing” and “the peace of God will guard your hearts and minds” in the first place, and I remembered why. It was because, for several years, this verse didn’t really seem to work for me. I would feel anxious, pray through everything that was worrying me, and feel more worried than ever afterwards. Since the peace of God seemed clearly not to be guarding much, I figured I must be misinterpreting the verse, and cast about for another way to look at it.

So what was going on? Why did praying through the things that were worrying me not work?

One answer I considered early on was the two little words “with thanksgiving”. I think if we pray about all our worries but do so with a complaining heart, we can’t expect to be freed from anxiety. The “with thanksgiving” part of the verse is what ensures we are praying in genuine faith.

A second answer I considered was that perhaps I wasn’t being completely open about what I was really worried about. Often we hide our strongest fears from ourselves, and worry about everything else instead. Though we pray about what we say we are afraid of, we don’t honestly deal with the real worry. I think sometimes we don’t feel peace when we pray because we haven’t let God know our requests “in everything”; in particular, not in the thing that was truly weighing us down.

Third, I don’t mean to suggest that we can use these verses like a magic formula. It’s a little funny to speak of a verse “working” for us at all, as though we were just plugging a technique into our lives and expecting an answer to pop out. God is not a vending machine, obliged to dispense peace when we put in the coin of petition + thanksgiving. We can depend on God to keep His promises, but we cannot dictate to Him how and when He will do so. I don’t think it is dishonoring to God, though, to expect that Scriptural promises will find real fulfillment in our lives. I think trying to work out what was going on was a way of my trying to take what God said seriously.

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I can’t speak for anyone else, but I think can explain now what was going on for me. The key, actually, is that I was trying too hard to bring my requests to God “in everything”.

Since in praying I was supposed to bring my requests to God, when I was worried I would work out what my requests were. I would ask, “What am I worried about? What could go wrong?” Then whatever I thought of I would pray about. Then I would ask again, “What else could go wrong?” and pray about that. The problem is, I have an almost infinite capacity to think of things that can go wrong, so after a few minutes of praying this way, I had a lot more to worry about than when I began.

No wonder I felt less peace after praying, rather than more! I’d spent all that time working up more and more reasons to be afraid!

It was even worse when my anxiety was not attached to anything specific. Some days I experience a strong sense of foreboding, a kind of generalized worry about everything. Now the question became “What could possibly go wrong today with anything?”, which, obviously, has a lot of potential answers! I would have said I was analyzing my anxiety and discovering its true causes, but probably I was just inventing as many things to worry about as possible.

It added to my anxiety that I held this vague belief that somehow I was responsible to break down for God all the things He would have to remember in answering my need. If I forgot to mention something that could go wrong, somehow I’d left myself open to it, as though God could only answer prayers for the specific things I analyzed.

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I’m a lot better these days 🙂

The chief thing I’ve learned is to dig no deeper than I need to. I’ve learned to simply say, “I’m worried about such and such tomorrow. I’m not sure why, or what could go wrong, and I don’t want to even think about it right now but I hand the whole package over to you. Would you just cover for the things I’ve forgotten and walk through it with me? Would you just see what could go wrong and take care of it in advance?” Then I stop worrying about it and leave it in his hands.

At first this was hard. I felt so out of control.

It makes sense, though, out of the phrase in verse 7, “the peace of God which surpasses all comprehension“. When I try to carve out my own peace, it is based on comprehension. I try to analyze the situation enough that I feel I completely understand it, and with that understanding comes a sense of being able to manage it. The anxiety subsides, for a while. The peace of God is different. The point is that I don’t  try to understand all the ins and outs of the situation. I don’t have to understand what could go wrong and what to do about it all. I just leave it in God’s hands.

I still struggle with fear and worry, but Philippians 4:6-7 makes a lot more sense to me now.

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