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.

Counter culture study, section 1

I’m participating in a Bible study at our church called Counter Culture based on a book by David Platt (see my previous post). I’m trying to work through this material fairly intensely, which means critiquing it as I go, to decide what I agree and disagree with. When I do that kind of thing, I tend to learn a lot.

Anyway, here are the most important thoughts I had as I worked through the first section (about 3 weeks worth of meetings).

The free-climbing story

During my grad school days, our church had monthly couples meetings in which the pastor would give a short devotional designed to encourage us in our marriages. One time the pastor showed a 15 minute video about someone doing “free climbing”, which apparently means climbing a cliff without a rope or any equipment. After commenting on the climber’s courage and perseverance, he used it as an example of the kind of commitment we should have within our marriages.

That threw me, because it was the exact opposite of what I had come to expect. As an undergrad, I’d attended a different church (in a different state) with a pastor whose specialty was pointing out how foolish and unbiblical the world’s approach to everything was. If hed shown the video, he would have pointed the folly of risking your life for something as inconsequential as rock-climbing. He would have emphasized how desperately the world searches for meaning and joy, and what dangerous thrill-seeking it leads them into.

So I was left with this question, which really bothered me at the time: when we see an example like the rock-climber, are we supposed to emphasize the good things about the example or the bad things?

I finally decided that the simple truth is that every thing the world does always has some aspect or other which positively demonstrates the truth of the gospel and another aspect which contrasts with it. We should notice both, and then we should use whichever is relevant to the situation in which we find ourselves (Colossians 4:6). If there must be a bias, let it be toward looking for the positive, as instructed in Philippians 4:8-9.

The study guide for our first week tended to emphasize the negative side of things throughout the first week’s material. I think we must be aware of the negative, but I would rather use the positive in most cases.

Integrating Christianity into our entire lives

Platt exhorts us to take what we believe about the gospel and think about everything in our lives in its light. I love that! We must get away from compartmentalizing everything. In my opinion, when our response to our culture is inadequately Christian, the problem is usually that we have not figured out how Jesus is relevant to it.

Desiring God

From time to time Platt makes the “anti-self” error. The answer is to read John Piper’s Desiring God.

Creation

How do we integrate our understanding of God as creator into our world view? How do we counter the culture using that understanding?

The answer most Christians at our church would give is to fight against evolution. I don’t think that is particularly important for most unbelievers, though.  I think there are two other points which are far more relevant to the average unbeliever’s life. The positive point is that if God is our creator, then there is a Great Storyteller for our lives. That is a beautiful thing to be able to honestly believe, and as Christians we get to! The negative point is that if God created us, then he “owns” us in some sense. He designed us for his own purposes, and he has the right, not we, to say what we are created for. We are behaving irresponsibly if we just wander off script and try to write our own story. We have a responsibility, and can be held accountable, for failing to live up to our design.

How do we integrate the understanding of the fall into our world view? How do we counter the culture using that understanding?

The essence of the fall was that Adam and Eve claimed the right to determine right and wrong for themselves in complete independence from God. Platt makes use of this idea by focusing on moral relativism. He argues that anyone who rejects belief in God cannot consistently believe in objective moral absolutes. Setting aside that there are many people who think that they can believe in absolutes without being believers in God, I still think this runs the risk of missing the point. We don’t want to get embroiled in technical philosophical debates about the connection between theism and morality.

Here’s the thing: most people, even those who claim all morality is relative, still have strong, deeply held moral convictions. That’s what we should have expected, according to Romans 2:14-16. The moral absolutes approach minimizes these feelings of morality, by telling people they have no right as unbelievers to have them. That doesn’t make sense to me; wouldn’t it be better to emphasize their sense of conscience, and then show them that even according to their own moral standards they are sinners in need of a savior?

Idolatry

The study guide uses the second half of Romans 1 to explore the topic of idolatry. Platt defines idolatry strangely, though. He says that we bow before things as idols when we “look to them for our hope, meaning, satisfaction, comfort, pleasure, or prosperity and when we think they’ll make our lives better.” God often uses things and people to give us hope, meaning, etc, though, and when he does it is completely legitimate to look to what he gives for what we need — especially if we see that he is behind them and give him thanks for them.

I think I know what Platt means — he means that idolatry is when we look to those things in some ultimate sense that should be reserved only for God. I would rather define idolatry as when we use any other thing or person, including the instruments of God’s blessings to us, as a substitute for God, so that we do not have to look to him.

Platt points out the obsession of the Athenians with whatever is new (Acts 17:21), and explores the possibility that they made an idol of the new. I think this could be true, but I would like to point out that it is just as common to make an idol out of the old (as in Mark 2:21-22 and 7:8). Furthermore, Paul didn’t reprove the Athenians for their attitude toward the new — it was that very attitude that made them willing to listen to him!

Similarly, in our case, I don’t think we should quench the desire for novelty. We should just be sure that people are willing to actually act on what they discover. The Athenians didn’t really want answers; they just wanted to play around with ideas. We probably do need to challenge people to avoid that.

Platt asked us to list some of the most important idols in our day. My list is

  • Sensuality
  • Success / drivenness / the ability to get things done at any cost
  • Tolerance
  • Celebrity status
  • Being able to provide data / scientific proof for everything

How should we respond to culture?

Platt considers four alternatives: conform, check out, combat, or counter. When we counter, he says, we seek to redeem, not conquer. I think that is wise.

When he talks about conforming, he finds fault with our desire to make the gospel appeal to the surrounding culture. The gospel, he says, is inherently offensive. I agree that there are parts of the gospel which will offend, but it is equally true that the gospel, if we present it correctly, speaks to deep yearnings in people. It draws them. It’s beautiful. If we don’t see that, we will miss lots of opportunities. He is right, though: we must not try to water down the hard parts of the gospel. In fact the beautiful parts of the gospel usually are the same as the difficult parts. If we soften what seem hard in it, we at the same time dilute what is good in it.

There is a difference between using culture to redeem people and redeeming culture. Platt shows how we can do the first: we can take popular ideas as expressed in movies, songs, and so on, and use them to build rapport and then discuss the gospel. I think we can do the second, actually redeem the culture — not REDEEM it, in the sense of saving it, of course, but redeem it, in the sense of bringing something good out of it. The culture isn’t just a bunch of individuals, but a system, and there is evil that is systemic. We can bring about real, though somewhat superficial, change to the system. (Deep changes are coming when Jesus returns.) Just think about how the church changed slavery or the treatment of orphans, for example, or the role it had in establishing democracy. It isn’t a waste of time to seek similar transformation in our own society today, as long as we keep proclaiming that Jesus is still only ever the real answer.

We are all in the culture. If we want to counter and redeem it, then we have to live in it. Some Christians use movies, songs, and other cultural expressions merely as rapport-building gimmicks for the gospel. I think we must go further. We must allow ourselves to be moved by the movies and the songs, to find them meaningful, but to do so discerningly.

Inception

Platt asked us to think of a popular song, show, or movie, to analyze it to see what desires, needs, questions of values of popular society it expresses, and then to show how Jesus meets those needs. Here is my example.

The movie Inception (spoilers ahead) has at its core the following problem: the protagonist Cobb and his wife are deeply involved in dreams that seem completely real. As a consequence, they begin to wonder whether real life is real. His wife, driven by her obsession with the question, loses all connection with her family and eventually dies because of it. He is faced with the same danger. At the very end of the movie, he spins his totem, which is a small top. If it falls over, it is supposed to prove that he is not in a dream. At the last minute, he looks up, sees his son out in the yard, and goes out to be with him, leaving the top still spinning. The camera closes in on the totem for a moment, and then the screen goes dark without letting the audience see whether it has fallen, leaving us in doubt ourselves about whether the final scene was a dream or in real life.

Why did the movie leave the final question (Were they still dreaming?) unresolved? Not just as a gimmick, I believe. I think it was to emphasize for us the emotional state of the protagonist. He walked away because he decided he didn’t need to know after all. The movies is asking us as viewers to make the same decision, to realize we don’t need to know either. We can just live life.

There are times when we just can’t know everything for certain. When that happens, we can get stuck in skepticism and doubt, or we can move on with life.

Hopefully, none of this would be me just preaching; it’d be a conversation.

At some point I would tell them about the dwarves in The Last Battle, the final book in the Narnia chronicles, who were offered the chance to enter heaven but turned it down because they didn’t want to take the risk of trusting what they were being told.

I’d challenge them to consider their own attitude toward the gospel in this light. Some people pride themselves on being unwilling to consider any belief in God that does not come attached to absolute scientific proof. I’d challenge them to stop thinking of God as sitting out there passively while they work their way to him by intellectually proving his existence. Instead, they should ask God, if he is there, to reveal himself to them, using as much evidence as he realizes they should need to make trust in him reasonable. When he does so, they should be open to it. I’d also explain that Christians believe God revealed himself in the person of Jesus. I’d suggest they read the gospel of Mark and try to see what kind of man this was, and whether he seems like someone they can trust.

As always, I’d welcome additional thoughts in the comments.

Counter culture study, first night

I going to be participating in a Bible Study called Counter Culture, based on a book by David Platt. Here are my thoughts from the first evening, pretty much just as I had them.

  • I am cranky tonight, ready to argue with everyone. I don’t want to be that way. I want to be open to anything God shows me, and expectant and hopeful that he will show me something.
  • Part of the reason I am cranky is because I’m feeling out of place here. But the people at my table are a pleasant surprise. They seem interesting, intelligent, and willing to accept my brand of thinking-about-Christianity.
  • I am reading Ps 102:1-7 [Most of us at the table were there about 15 minutes early]. There is a lot here about despair and sadness. Someone at the table shakes her head at David’s despair, but I want to defend him. If this is inspired Scripture, it seems to me it is important for us to feel this way sometimes. In fact, “feeling” my way through this passage is granting me relief from my crankiness. Instead of feeling cranky, I now just feel sad, and as though I am bringing my sadness to God, and that seems to have been the problem all along. I wasn’t cranky, I was just sad (for no particular reason that I know of), and in denial about it. Now that I’ve owned it, God seems present in the middle of it, as in this Psalm. Actually, I guess there is much to be sad about – the counter-cultural mess we are in is heartbreaking, both in terms of what the world is doing to itself, and the attacks being made on the church, and the church’s somewhat self-destructive responses.
  • We’ve started. PJ is warning us about how much material there is available. Yay! –it looks like there is a lot of substance here. I hope. We watch a video advertising the series. I think I’ll like it. The members of the class make some thoughtful comments in response to the introductory stuff. Looks like this will be a good study.
  • The video / book, like the blurb, says that we are comfortable confronting poverty as Christians, but don’t know what to do with uncomfortable subjects like abortion. That seems backwards for Harvest Time. In our church, everyone knows what to say about abortion. It’s the subjects like poverty, the ones that seem to be politically liberal, that make people uncomfortable. Except poverty in third-world countries. We’re comfortable helping out with that – probably because it seems different than welfare.
  • PJ mentions the importance of focusing on relationships instead of rights. I am not sure where that should lead. Focusing on the rights of others is important. Proverbs 31:8-9. Of course, our relationship with God is far more important, but that’s not because of the priority of relationships, but because of the priority of God. Yet perhaps the priority of love means relationships trump rights. (What I mean, to be clear, is that focusing in a Biblical way on rights is a relational thing, or should be. It is how we ought to relate to the oppressed in love.)
  • There is an interesting section about the relative unimportance of changing people’s behavior vs. affecting eternity. The point is that the gospel is the most important need people have, far more than our changing how they behave. I agree, but I have a few comments. [This is my most important point.] This has things wrong. First, we focus not on eternity away from the world, but on the return of Jesus to this world. That is what we are supposed to be looking for. So it is here, not there, that will matter for us. Second, we are people who are waiting for him to return. No lasting change can happen without that. So it is very true that changing things now is not the most important thing. Third, we don’t work for cultural change in order to accomplish something that only the return of Jesus can accomplish, anyway. Rather, we do it as a demonstration / sign of the work of God, to point people to the coming King. It functions equivalently to the healing / miracles and compassion that Jesus demonstrated while on earth. There is no point is seeing God heal if you aren’t going to be drawn to salvation by it (Mark 2:9-11). There is no point in having a demon cast out only to have seven more return because you didn’t respond in the meantime to what it signified (Matthew 12:43-45). They are signs pointing people to the return of Jesus. Fourth, we can’t do that inauthentically. We can’t show compassion and change culture with the sole motive of being an advertisement for Jesus. What we have to do is to become the sort of people who automatically function as healers of the culture, regardless of whether it makes strategic sense. We are to be faithful and authentic, and leave the fruitfulness to God. Fifth, we know how this works already in one area – marriage counseling. Are we interested in helping people have better marriages? We should be interested in making the culture better to pretty much the same extent.
  • Colossians 4:5-6. I’ve always misunderstood this verse. I thought (because of the way the NASB translated it) that it meant that we salt our speech with grace. But the salt is the confrontational/truth part, and is there along with the grace.
  • We talked about confronting the world in an unloving manner. PJ makes the very good point that just because we have truth on our side, it doesn’t justify our saying it badly. However, we have to consider the Jesus-cleansing-the-temple example and the Isaiah-mocking-the-idolaters example. I don’t know how to blend those (John 2:13-17, Isaiah 44:9-20). The point is, that sometimes things that look unloving are actually loving. I’m pretty sure I agree about some of the unloving examples being unloving, but I’m not sure I can justify in light of these passages that they actually are. [The same issue arose several times the next day in facebook articles: when is it inappropriate to be harsh? When is it inappropriate to be critical of those who are being harsh?]
  • I suspect the apples-of-gold verse is relevant, and the don’t-speak/do-speak to a fool verse (Proverbs 25:11, 26:4-5).
  • 1 Corinthians 5:9-13. We don’t judge the world. Yet we do tell them they are wrong. What is the difference? In context, it must be whether we levy consequences on people for wrong behavior.
  • How does the question of our role in government and democracy apply? Wilson (https://dougwils.com/s7-engaging-the-culture/the-r2k-crucifix-problem.html, https://dougwils.com/s7-engaging-the-culture/ground-level-tactics-of-christian-resistance.html, https://dougwils.com/s7-engaging-the-culture/a-year-of-fresh-outrage.html, for example).
  • Persecution vs. being ignored. First, sometimes we are ignored. That leads us to want to be noticed. That leads us, sometimes, to be obnoxious, or at least shocking. Second, persecution is coming, and, I believe, is already here. Many Christians are annoyed that we call ourselves persecuted. I disagree, because part of persecution is being slandered, and we are. I don’t think we should agree with the slander to avoid being defensive and proud, because that throws our fellow believers under the bus. Yet the Confession chapter of Blue Like Jazz was wonderful. Why do I agree with one and not the other? Maybe it’s the pride inherent in one version and missing from Miller. Third, persecution is sometimes manifested in the attempt to marginalize Christians (Sam Harris for example).
  • Sometimes people react against us because of the conviction of the Holy Spirit, says Aaron. I agree. Then I thought: sometimes they react against us because they fear our hostility toward them. Then it occurred to me – if they are afraid of our hostility, then that will actually obscure the conviction of the Holy Spirit from them, so it’s important not to interpose is as an extra barrier. (It’s a very different thing, I suppose, to speak in a way that brings them face to face with God’s.)
  • As I mentioned in the class, if we are going to be all things to all men (1 Corinthians 9:19-23), we will sometimes not know whether we are going too far. Therefore, one evidence that we are in the right place as a church is that do not all agree on whether we are going too far. Therefore, also, we need those voices in the church that are worried about our going too far – they keep us safe. It’s just that we need to have the discussion, not shut it down. We need to decide it issue by issue. The naysayers should not attempt to forestall ever getting close to the boundary.

Two modes

A decade ago or so, I was praying about the disorder in my life and realized that what made things difficult was that I had two very different needs. On the one hand, there were projects I was involved in – like raising a family – which required me to be patient and persistent and quietly constructive. On the other, there were battles I was fighting – against various temptations, or against obsessive fears – that required me to be bold and intense. I found that it was hard to be in the right mode at the right time. If I focused on fighting the battles, I would lose my patience with my family; if I settled into raising my family, I would lose my intensity for the battle.

At the time I thought of the story of Nehemiah. As the people of Israel built the wall, they also had to defend themselves against enemies. They worked in teams. One person would build the wall as another stood guard nearby to defend him. Some people carried things with one hand while holding a weapon with the other (Nehemiah 4:15-23). I loved the image of someone with a brick in one hand and a sword in the other. Somehow just having that picture helped me make sense of my life at the time, and keep everything in its place.

At a very different time in my life, the same theme recurred. I wrote about it here.

This semester, I’ve been thinking about having a brick in on hand and a paintbrush in the other. One thing that takes up most of my time right now is my heavy class load. Teaching and administering all my classes requires my building-the-wall mode. The rest of the time, I’ve been working on creative things, things that require me to be in an artistic mode, in which I open myself up emotionally and spiritually. I find that it is hard for me to switch from one mode to the other. When I start getting creative ideas for my side projects, I lose the discipline to stay caught up with grading. When I grind through my daily work, I shut down aesthetically.

A friend of mine pointed out that most artists aren’t well-known for their will-power, and observed that for many artists, will-power gets in the way of creativity. In other words, it’s the same story over again: we can function in one mode, or the other, but it’s hard to switch between modes.

I was reading Psalm 96 last week, and noticed this description of God:

The Lord made the heavens;

Splendor and majesty are before him

Strength and beauty are in his sanctuary. (Psalm 96:5-6)

I was struck by the last line: strength and beauty are in his sanctuary. Strength corresponds to the builder mode. Beauty corresponds to the artist mode. God exemplifies both. I like the fact that when I come into the presence of God, I find One who understands and embodies both my artistic ideals and my constructive impulse. I can draw from him whatever I need, whether it be dogged determination or a sensitivity to beauty.

This week, I ended up in a long argument with several people on Facebook. It was a good argument – everyone spoke civilly, I got the chance to try out some ideas I’d been wanting to explore, and I think everyone learned a lot. Yet, I found it really draining. I ended up feeling angry and guilty most of the day. I felt inwardly hardened.

When I had my quiet time (reluctantly, since I was still feeling a little fierce) I read these verses:

To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: … ‘I know your deeds and your toil and perseverance, and that you cannot tolerate evil men, and you put to the test those who call themselves apostles, and they are not, and you found them to be false; and you have perseverance and have endured for My name’s sake, and have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have left your first love. Therefore remember from where you have fallen, and repent and do the deeds you did at first; or else I am coming to you and will remove your lampstand out of its place—unless you repent. Yet this you do have, that you hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. ’ (Revelation 2:1-6)

Jesus starts by praising the church for being vigilant warriors for the truth. Then he warns them that they have lost their first love. That could mean either their love for Jesus, or their love for one another. At the moment, I’m inclined to see it as referring to the second. Their love for Jesus was plain to see, expressed in their vehement struggle against false doctrine. It was their love for one another that had been drowned out by the battle.

Again, we have two modes. In warrior mode, everyone looks like a potential enemy. It’s hard to move from warrior to mode to nurturing mode. It’s probably equally hard to move in the other direction.

It’s interesting how well David in the Old Testament managed to be both warrior and shepherd/psalmist.

In any case, once again the question before me is how to move back and forth from one mode to another, as the situation requires. It’s hard to be that emotionally nimble.

How about you? What modes do you find you have to switch back and forth between? What helps you to do so?

The second greatest Christmas present I ever received

The first, of course, is Jesus Himself.

The second was about ten years ago when, in the throes of chronic depression, I woke up on Christmas morning happy. There was no reason for it, it simply happened.

I wasn’t exuberant, I was tranquil. I felt free. Everything felt quietly right. I had no guilt. No worry. I wasn’t even bored. As far as I can recall, it lasted all day, although I noticed it less as I got used to it.

Over the next few days, it gradually faded and the familiar depression returned, but for some reason that didn’t bother me particularly. Normally I would have clung desperately to an experience like the one I’d had, but in this case worrying about holding on to it seemed unnecessary, somehow. Inconsistent, even.

Besides, having felt it once made all the difference.

Partly, it gave me hope. Knowing that it was possible for me to feel like that made it worthwhile to work my way back to it. In future weeks, when I returned to the Scriptures to understand joy, one of the things that I realized was that joy is a process. Psalm 16 said:

You will make known to me the path of life;
In Your presence is fullness of joy;
In Your right hand there are pleasures forever.

I started reading this as saying that I am on the path of life, headed towards the perfect joy that is found in His presence, but not there yet. The fruit of the Spirit is joy, but fruit takes time to grow.

It also let me know what happiness was supposed to feel like. It’s hard to describe why that was so important, but it was. The closest analogy I can come up with is learning something physical. I remember rehearsing dance moves for a school musical. In the first few minutes, we would be shown the pieces of a particular step. We’d copy the way we were shown to move the left leg, the right leg, our bodies and arms. I’d try to do the step myself, holding together all the directions in my mind at once, and it would feel awkward and confused. Then, at about the third or fourth try, there would be a moment. By accident, I’d do it the right way, and from then on it was a lot easier. Once I’d felt it, I could repeat that by memory — not as a complicated series of disconnected body movements, but as one, essential, unified action. The step wouldn’t be perfect yet. I still had to think about how to move the left leg, the right leg, etc., but now those were merely minor modifications to a movement I already knew how to do.

Learning the right kind of tennis stroke or golf stroke worked the same way. Once I’d actually done it, I could repeat the same action by memory, and just tweak the stroke in small ways to get it right.

This was just like that, but instead of the feel of a smooth backhand it was the feel of being happy. I could remember what it felt like, and aim at that.

I’m still not sure why it happened. I speculated for a while that maybe I had some sort of forgotten dream whose effects were still lingering when I woke. These days, I am taking the idea of demons seriously, and I wonder if God lifted some sort of demonic oppression for a day. Maybe it was just the inner metaphorical demons of guilt and fear and despair that He temporarily released me from. Actually, I don’t think the two explanations are mutually exclusive.

The one thing I’m sure of is that I didn’t earn it. It wasn’t because I changed my attitude, or disciplined my thought life or finally surrendered my heart to God. It just happened to me.

Recently I was reflecting on my life so far. Those years of depression were one of five really difficult life struggles I’ve had. Each struggle was incredibly sad in some way. With each one, God eventually delivered me. Each made me stronger somehow, and became an essential part of my life story, so that I became ultimately glad to have gone through it. Even though I was deeply and desperately involved in each struggle, in each case there was something important God did that I could not or would not do for myself. In each case there was a moment of unexpected grace. In the case of depression, that moment was a Christmas morning a decade or so ago.

Merry Christmas, everyone. May God be as bountifully good to you in your need as He was that day to me!

Contaminated by holiness

Recently I mentioned to a few people that in Leviticus, sin is talked about almost as a contagious disease. It makes us unclean and then we cannot approach God. Sort of like being quarantined.

In Leviticus 6, the picture is almost the opposite. It’s as though holiness is the contagion, and it’s dangerous for humans.

Here are verses 8-11:

Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Command Aaron and his sons, saying, ‘This is the law for the burnt offering: the burnt offering itself shall remain on the hearth on the altar all night until the morning, and the fire on the altar is to be kept burning on it. The priest is to put on his linen robe, and he shall put on undergarments next to his flesh; and he shall take up the ashes to which the fire reduces the burnt offering on the altar and place them beside the altar. Then he shall take off his garments and put on other garments, and carry the ashes outside the camp to a clean place. 

Before the priest removes the ashes from the holy altar, he must don special “protective gear”. After the ashes are removed from the altar, he is supposed to take them outside the camp to dispose of them, but before he does that he has to change back out of the linen clothes, presumably to limit the contact of everyone else with the garments. Even he himself is protected from the linen clothes by special undergarments. Touching the altar “contaminates” the linen garments with holiness, and contact is kept to a minimum.

Here are verses 24-28.

Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to Aaron and to his sons, saying, ‘This is the law of the sin offering: in the place where the burnt offering is slain the sin offering shall be slain before the LORD; it is most holy. The priest who offers it for sin shall eat it. It shall be eaten in a holy place, in the court of the tent of meeting. Anyone who touches its flesh will become consecrated; and when any of its blood splashes on a garment, in a holy place you shall wash what was splashed on. Also the earthenware vessel in which it was boiled shall be broken; and if it was boiled in a bronze vessel, then it shall be scoured and rinsed in water.”

Once again, the point seems to be to limit human contact with the holy. Garments that come into contact with it must be washed, but only in the sanctuary area — they should not be taken outside the camp unwashed. Vessels that were used to cook the holy offerings must be either broken or at least scoured and rinsed.

Here is another passage that sounds sort of similar from Ezekiel 46:19-20.

Then he brought me through the entrance, which was at the side of the gate, into the holy chambers for the priests, which faced north; and behold, there was a place at the extreme rear toward the west. He said to me, “This is the place where the priests shall boil the guilt offering and the sin offering and where they shall bake the grain offering, in order that they may not bring them out into the outer court to transmit holiness to the people.

It also reminds me of this passage in Exodus 33:18-24:

Then Moses said, “I pray You, show me Your glory!” And He said, “I Myself will make all My goodness pass before you, and will proclaim the name of the LORD before you; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show compassion on whom I will show compassion.” But He said, “You cannot see My face, for no man can see Me and live!” Then the LORD said, “Behold, there is a place by Me, and you shall stand there on the rock; and it will come about, while My glory is passing by, that I will put you in the cleft of the rock and cover you with My hand until I have passed by. Then I will take My hand away and you shall see My back, but My face shall not be seen.

This is all sort of strange and maybe profound.

Am I right in thinking that in Christ we are able to approach the holiness of God without fear or danger?

I frequently ponder the hiddenness of God, the way that he so rarely shows himself to people overtly. I’ve tended to assume we need to learn to see God in the ordinary. But these verses emphasize the opposite idea — the idea that God is anything but ordinary. They make it sound like he hides himself partly because he is protecting us from too direct a revelation.

How do all these thoughts fit together? I’m not sure yet … Feel free to speculate in the comments.

Forgiveness

Our pastor’s sermon yesterday was on forgiveness. Afterwards our family had a discussion about it. So here’re all the thoughts I have about forgiveness for now.

Forgiveness is odd. On the one hand, it is a kind of mercy, which means is it always strictly undeserved. If it was deserved, it wouldn’t be forgiveness but justice. On the other hand it is our obligation as Christians to forgive. So how can I be obligated to give someone something he doesn’t have a right to?

One possible solution is that my obligation to forgive other people is actually an obligation to God. He has forgiven me, and demands that I do the same. They can’t justly claim forgiveness from me, but God can justly require me to give it.

Another solution is say that certain relationships obligate us to forgive others. A father ought to have compassion and mercy toward his children, for example, according to both Scripture (Psalm 103:13) and common sense. I forgive my children quickly not because the nature of their offences obligates my forgiveness but because the nature of our relationship obligates it. Good fathers are merciful toward their children. Good marriages are built on forgiveness. Good families maintain an atmosphere of forgiveness.

Christians are obligated to forgive one another on both counts: because God commands it, and because we are spiritually brothers and sisters in Christ. (Colossians 3:12-13, 1 Peter 4:8, etc.)

On a related note, in the New Testament we tend to think of God’s forgiveness as the prerequisite for us to enter his family. We cannot become children of God until our sins are pardoned (Ephesians 1:7, for example). In the Old, forgiveness is presented as the result of being God’s children. God’s chosen people experience his mercy because they belong to him (2 Chronicles 7:14, for example). I think the gospels also look at forgiveness the same way.

Jesus often taught that if we do not forgive, God will not forgive us. I used to worry that somehow that meant that if we do not forgive, we lose our salvation; then for a while I took it as establishing a prerequisites for saving faith. Most of the verses are in the context of prayer, though, and in such cases I think there’s a simpler explanation. Jesus means simply that if we come to God with unforgiveness toward others, he won’t answer our prayers. As long as we ignore their pleas, we cannot expect God to hear ours. (Mark 11:25-26, Matthew 6:14-15, 18:19-22).

The pastor said yesterday that forgiveness does not mean forgetting what was done. Yet, Scripture also speaks of God’s forgiveness by saying He will remember our sins no more (Isaiah 43:25, Jeremiah 31:34, Hebrews 8:12,16-17). Why does it say that? My children’s answer was: it means that God will not focus on our sins. Love “keeps no record of wrongs” (1 Corinthians 13:5). That is, we remember what was done to us, but when we evaluate others, we do not take those wrongs into account. That means that as long as the only thing we think about is the wrong someone has done us, we still aren’t fully forgiving.

One way to think about forgiveness of believers is in terms of 2 Corinthians 5:16-17. There, Paul says that when we think of other Christians, we should think of them as new creatures in Christ. All the sin of their past is erased. Even if you, as a Christian, should sin against me, I need to see that as a mere reflection of who you used to be. It is a remnant of your old life. It comes from the flesh. It isn’t who you really are anymore. It isn’t who you will be when Jesus returns. Forgiving you means, among other things, seeing you as you are created to be in Christ, and refusing to identify you with the way you act when you sin.

Our pastor suggested that forgiveness is not an emotion, but merely an act of the will. I agree that forgiveness frequently starts with an act of the will, but our emotions should eventually fall in line as well. At its fullest, forgiveness will affect our emotions. It would be a mistake to think of God’s perfect forgiveness as begrudging, for example. Nor would it be very forgiving of me to say to someone, “I have forgiven you with my will, even though I still have feelings of hatred toward you, and always expect to.”

Still, as another one of my children pointed out, when someone has hurt us, there are a lot of emotions involved. In particular, there will probably be both resentment and sorrow. Forgiving someone may release me from the resentful emotions, but leave the sadness in place. That can make it hard to feel as though I’ve fully forgiven someone.

Sometimes forgiving someone takes a while. I think it’s significant that the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13) has us pray “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” The Lord’s Prayer is full of things that we are supposed to pray daily. “Give us this day our daily bread” – as opposed to praying “Give me everything I need for the rest of my life” once, and then being done with it. “Forgive us our trespasses” today as opposed to “Forgive me all my sins for the rest of my life” and then never asking again. In the same way, we pray “as we forgive those …” each day because each day we need to be reminded that we are forgiving others.

A few years ago I had difficulty forgiving someone. I kept trying to truly forgive and then discovering the next day that I still had resentment toward them. At first I felt discouraged; I took this as a sign that my decision to forgive hadn’t been real, hadn’t “taken” in some way. Then I realized that perhaps I simply needed to reaffirm my decision to forgive every day. “Since it’s a new day, God, I once again forgive ___.” Gradually, the discipline of regularly re-forgiving changed my feelings and my stance. The forgiveness that had been at first just an act of my will became something deeper and more consistent.

Forgiveness is different than pardon, I think. Pardon is releasing someone from the penalty that justice requires, whereas forgiveness is related to the relationship. If I am a Christian, and have a job as a judge, I am supposed to forgive people but I am not permitted to ignore justice and stop sentencing them. In real life, I’m not a judge, but I am a teacher. If I am to have integrity as a teacher, I need to grade people’s work accurately. If you don’t turn in a paper, I’ll give you a 0. I’ll forgive you, but I’ll still give you a 0.

That makes it difficult to know to what extent we are supposed to implement mercy and forgiveness in society and government. Luther taught that there were two realms. In the spiritual realm we are supposed to live by grace and forgive each other. In the worldly realm of government we are supposed to live by law and hold people to the consequences of their sins. Similar distinctions apply to warfare. C.S. Lewis said that it is completely consistent for a Christian soldier to pray for a man’s soul while trying to kill him. I think there’s some wisdom in all this, but I think there may be something wrong in it also. I don’t think the “two realms” can be compartmentalized so easily. But I don’t have a better suggestion.

God both pardons and forgives us, by the way.

Do others have to ask for forgiveness before we can forgive them? Well, in a practical sense, we must unilaterally forgive others before they repent. If we had to wait until others repented to do that, we’d be in trouble, because some people will never repent, and some who have hurt us may have died. Forgiveness in this unilateral sense is simply a change of attitude on our part. We let go of our resentment. We release them in our heart, for our own sake. As someone said, “Forgiveness is setting a prisoner free, and discovering that the prisoner was me.”

On the other hand, I think forgiveness proper does require repentance on the part of the offender. Scripture seems to speak of God as extending forgiveness to all who will accept it, as though the forgiveness is not really put into place until they repent and are saved. Although forgiveness is offered unilaterally, it cannot really be received by someone who is unwilling to admit he was wrong. (Psalm 86:5, Luke 24:47, Acts 10:43, etc. – see also Luke 17:3-4)

What about when Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing?” (Luke 23:34). What about when Stephen said, “Do not hold this sin against them?” (Acts 7:60). Isn’t that unilateral forgiveness?

Let’s start with Stephen. Does his prayer mean that all those who stoned him were forgiven all their sins? Hardly. I think it’s extremely unlikely that they all got saved. (How much did Stephen’s prayer connect to Saul’s eventual conversion? Hmm … set that aside for future consideration.) Did his prayer mean that all those who did not get saved were nonetheless forgiven by God for that particular sin apart from the blood of Christ? No, that doesn’t make sense either. In fact, if you think about it, the men who stoned Stephen were committing serious blasphemy against God. What right did Stephen have to ask that they be forgiven?

I think the best way to make sense of Stephen’s prayer is this. When those men stoned Stephen, they were ultimately sinning against God. They were also sinning against Stephen. While Stephen could not strictly speaking pardon their sins against God, he could release his own claim against them. He was saying, “God, deal with their sin as you need to, but I relinquish any claim I might have against them on the basis of what they are doing to me right now.”

I think Jesus was saying the same thing. He was speaking as a man being unjustly crucified. He was saying, “Father, I am, after all, dying that they might be forgiven. I certainly don’t want to also bring my own charge against them for killing me.”

There’s a lot here I don’t understand about the relationship between sins against us and sins against God and our “right” to bring our grievances to God for judgment. Some relevant passages might be Genesis 4:10, Revelation 6:9-11, John 20:23, Romans 12:19-20, Psalm 51:4.

In the Old Testament, there were several times when sacrifices were required for sins that people committed unknowingly. (Leviticus 4:2,13-14 for example.) Is it possible to be guilty for something that was not deliberate? Can our lives be stained by sin even when our hearts were innocent of any attempt to sin? I don’t know, but I do think that God sometimes used pictures of sin consistent with that idea. He seemed to want the Israelites to imagine sin as something we can commit without even trying. We can find ourselves unclean before God without even having intentionally done anything wrong.  Whether this reflects the idea that sin is not always deliberate, or whether it reflects that we deliberately sin even when we think we don’t, I am not sure.

I do agree with Paul Ricouer that the notion of being unclean before God is more basic than the notion of violating a moral code. We don’t start with the idea of a moral law, and only then develop the awareness that if we have violated it, we are cut off from the presence of God. Rather, we start with the sense of being wrong somehow, of being cut off from God, and then develop a sense of moral standards afterwards. Guilt is a more primitive notion than failure to follow a code, which corresponds to the fact that our sin goes deeper into us than our conscious choices.

The word conscience in Scripture does not refer primarily to a Jiminy-Cricket-like voice who tells us ahead of time what we should and shouldn’t do. It refers to the weight of guilt we experience after the fact, which tells us that we have become unclean and unfit to stand in God’s presence. Our forgiveness in Christ means first and foremost that we are objectively declared innocent before God, but it has a subjective impact on us as well. The weight of our sin is lifted, and our conscience is cleansed.

How blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven,
Whose sin is covered!

How blessed is the man to whom the LORD does not impute iniquity,
And in whose spirit there is no deceit!

When I kept silent about my sin, my body wasted away
Through my groaning all day long.

For day and night Your hand was heavy upon me;
My vitality was drained away as with the fever heat of summer.  Selah.

I acknowledged my sin to You,
And my iniquity I did not hide;
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD”;
And You forgave the guilt of my sin. Selah. (Psalm 32:1-5)

Praise the Lord!

Political controversies

I’ve been frustrated for years by political controversies. I decided a few weeks ago it’s time to start working out what I think for real.

My first avenue of attack is to decide how I think the discussion should proceed. I want to work out the rules I think are essential for a productive dialogue, and then let that guide me to the people I trust to show me how to think about political things.

One of the first moments of clarity for me came after listening to this iTunes U philosophy lecture.  The one I have in mind is #7, “Understand Skepticism About Climate Change”.

I describe the whole lecture over here. This was my conclusion:

Suppose conservatives and liberals disagree over factual issue X. Then I think the following are key to a discussion that actually makes progress.

  • Realize that people make decisions about X based on who they trust. It isn’t that one side is willing to look at the facts and the other isn’t. It’s that each side has its own experts telling it what the facts are.
  • Expect people on each side to be rational and honest. It’s just that liberals and conservatives have different presuppositions and trust different people.
  • Don’t use X to push a liberal/conservative agenda. That instantly makes you untrustworthy.
  • Help opponents find a way to believe X while remaining conservative/liberal.That’ll take creativity, but it gives people space to look at X without feeling like they’re being pushed into something else.

I leave it as an exercise to the reader to think about how this would work in the case of scientific creationism / evolution, or the question of who was to blame in Ferguson, or the question of whether Obamacare was a good idea.