Sunday Meditations: Inerrancy

Occasionally, people read this blog who are not from the United States of America and, as such, you may be unaware that a person’s position on what we call “biblical inerrancy” is a huge deal in the States and often used as a boundary marker between “true Christian” and “wolf in sheep’s clothing.”

It is worthy of note that different people can mean different things by “inerrancy,” so for the purposes of this article, I’m going to define inerrancy as the view that the canon of Protestant Scriptures contains no statements which could be considered false from the standpoint of 21st century interpretation.

Or, to sum it up a little differently, whatever we as modern readers think the language of the Bible claims, those claims cannot be false.

So, for example, in Genesis 1, it describes the world being created in six days.  We know that a day is 24 hours, so it must be the case that the Earth went from non-existence to plants, animals, and human beings in less than a week.  This is what it means, for the purpose of this article, to affirm inerrancy.

To state that that the author of Genesis 1 does not mean this and/or to state that the Earth was actually formed over a period of time much longer than a week would be a violation of inerrancy.  In other words, to an inerrantist, you are essentially saying the Bible is wrong, and it cannot be wrong.  Even if rabbis don’t understand Genesis in this way, they are also wrong, according to this view.

This principle applies to the totality of statements to be found in Scripture.  Each one must be true in every way we as modern readers could regard a statement to be true.  Whatever evidence or argumentation can be produced to show that this is not the case needs to be reinterpreted in such a way as to maintain the inerrancy of the Bible, which is the primary axiom on which we should evaluate anything.

So, as we discover things like the life-cycle of new stars and planets, the dating of various strata, the distribution of minerals, etc. – all these things must be understood in some kind of framework that still allows for the Earth to have been fully formed in less than a week.  Because, if it turns out that the Earth wasn’t formed in less than a week, that would imply the Bible was claiming something that is factually untrue.

Some of you may be thinking, “Wouldn’t that just challenge our understanding of the passage?  What if we’re just reading it wrongly?”  Please stop asking questions, you godless heathens, because as it turns out, “my 21st century Western white guy reading of a passage” and “what the Bible says” are functionally the exact same thing.

As you can probably tell from that last bit, I don’t have a lot of respect for this view.  I do respect the intent of the view.  People hold to this view for various reasons, but at least one of them is usually the desire to honor God as trustworthy and truthful.  That is a noble thing to do, and something I would also affirm.  However, I think at least the firmer versions of inerrancy actually fail to do this and sort of force God into being deceptive.

Before I get too far into this, I should note that there are statements of faith on this issue that only affirm inerrancy for the original, biblical manuscripts.  I am bemused by this position.  Nobody has seen the original manuscript of a biblical writing in two thousand-ish years or more, which basically makes the value of this statement nonexistent, at least from any kind of practical perspective.  As a profession of faith, ok, thanks for that, but why?  All we have to work with – and all we have had to work with for a very long time – have been copies of copies of copies that display a great range of diversity.  I guess I would say that I don’t really have much of a beef with this particular view of inerrancy so much as I consider it pointless.  And, functionally, the people who hold to this view tend to behave in the same way as people who hold to stricter forms of inerrancy – as if the manuscripts we have / have been chosen for their preferred translation / the English translations therein are also inerrant.

Here are some of the issues I have with inerrancy, at least the way it typically comes across.

The Bible Does Not Claim This About Itself

This is one of the bitter ironies about inerrancy – it depends on coming to the Bible with this assumption already in your head.

One of the things we as modern readers of the Bible need to be reminded of is that no text in the Bible ever refers to the Bible because the Bible did not exist when that text was written, nor was the text written for the purpose of adding it to the Bible.  Terms like “word of the Lord” or “word of God” or “the Law and the Prophets” or “Scriptures” need to be understood within the historical context of the passage in which they appear, and these references vary.  Sometimes, “the Law” refers to the book of Deuteronomy.  Sometimes, the “word of God” refers to the man Jesus Christ.  Sometimes, the “word of God” refers to the news about the man Jesus Christ.  So, when you read a verse that uses terms like this, you have to figure out what the boundaries are, and that boundary is never “the Protestant canon as we know it, today.”

The next thing we need to keep in mind is how to interpret whatever statement is made about the Scriptures or the word of God or whatever passage we happen to be reading.  For instance, Psalm 19:10 says, “The Law of the Lord is perfect.” (Sorry narrative, prophecy, wisdom literature, and… oh yes… psalms).  But what does this mean?  We might assume it means “complies with 21st century standards of verification,” but this is unlikely.

It turns out that even words like “perfect” are contextually defined.  If I’m trying to get a crate open, and you hand me a crowbar, I might say, “Oh, thanks.  This crowbar is perfect.”  What I mean is that it’s perfect for the use I have in mind.  The crowbar is not a perfect meal or a perfect orator.  My statement also does not imply that the crowbar has no flaws or weaknesses.  It means that the crowbar is perfect for the intended use in that situation.

I’m not declaring that’s what Psalm 19:10 necessarily means (although that’s probably what it means), but I’m just illustrating that even very strong terms used for Scriptures do not automatically equate to an inerrantist view.

Perhaps the most famous example is 2 Timothy 3:16-17, “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.”

There is some debate over whether or not that opening phrase is best rendered “all scripture that is inspired by God is useful….”  It certainly can be translated that way, but I think the traditional translation is probably correct for a number of reasons linguistic and otherwise.  Of course, we have to keep in mind that when Paul says, “All scripture,” the very most he can mean is, “everything in the Protestant canon that was written up until 2 Timothy.”  And he probably doesn’t mean that.

But the thing is, what does “inspired by God” actually mean?  The word theopneustos is an invention seemingly just for this passage.  We have nothing to compare it to.  Does it mean, “Factually true according to all standards of verification throughout time?”  It might mean that, I guess.  But you know what else was breathed out by God?  Adam’s life.  You know what else had the Holy Spirit in it?  David.  You.  Me.  Has that been a guarantee of perfection?

You might counter with, “Well, the Holy Spirit is perfect.  But when it works through me, my own sins and limitations will sometimes produce imperfect results.”  Well, I hesitate to bring this up, but the “Holy Spirit working through Person X” way of operating is pretty much how we got the Bible.

And isn’t it interesting how Paul says the Scriptures are “useful” and then defines the purposes under which they are useful that end up with equipping people for good works.  Does this mean the Bible is also “useful” for geology or aging fossils or constructing a seamless genealogy from me to Adam?  And if you want a reference for that word “useful,” it’s ophelimos which makes another appearance in 1 Timothy 4:8 where Paul says that exercise is a little useful, but godliness is useful for everything (ironically, godliness appears to be useful in more in more areas than the Scriptures are, according to 2 Tim. 3:17).  It’s kind of a loose word to use for something that is supposed to be the inerrant guide to all truth about everything.  Can you imagine an ordination exam where the candidate says, “I think the Bible is pretty useful for instruction in righteousness.  Definitely worth studying for pastors?”

And then of course, there is the logical problem.  Let’s say that 2 Timothy 3:16 definitely means that every statement in the Bible, including itself, is factually true in every way a statement can be evaluated.  Isn’t this question begging?  What if that verse is in error?  If it is, then it is wrong about itself.  It’s basically like someone claiming that they never lie.  Well, that’s great, unless they’re lying.

This is what I mean: inerrancy depends on you bringing inerrancy to the Bible, not discovering it from the Bible.  You have to begin with the assumption.

Inerrancy Can Cause Us To Miss What the Bible Says

Inerrancy is a form of eisigesis – we are basically bringing expectations to the Bible and reading it in such a way as to make our expectations work out.  In this case, the expectation is that whatever statements the Bible makes, they have to be factually accurate according to our modern reading of a text.  Our reading is assumed to be axiomatically correct, and the texts must conform to this.

Did you know there are Christians, today, who quite seriously maintain that the Earth is the immovable center of the universe?  They are called geocentrists, and they are a real thing.  Because if it turns out that the Earth moves around the Sun, then the Scriptures would be in error.

Most Christians would probably mock this, but I don’t understand why when inerrantists basically agree on all the same assumptions but aren’t gutsy enough or find themselves incapable of standing against such a huge tide of evidence.  We forget that there was a time in Church history when everyone just knew this was how cosmology worked because that’s what the Bible said.  Because the Bible is useful for training us in astronomy, right?

Honestly, even though I think the geocentrists are a flock of fruit bats, they are far more consistent (and gutsy) than their non-geocentrist inerrancy counterparts.  Inerrantists who are not geocentrists have capitulated in a sense.  They’ve said, “In light of overwhelming evidence, obviously we were reading the Bible wrongly and making figurative statements based on early cosmology literal scientific statements, and this was a mistake.  But we are totally not doing this for anything else.  It’s a fluke.”

Let’s take a test case that has come up with me in recent discussion – Isaiah 34.

In this chapter, Isaiah describes the destruction of Edom.  It begins with God destroying the sky and all the stars, and then turning that destructive power toward Edom.  When this happens, Edom’s soil will turn to sulfur and her streams will turn to pitch, and the whole land will turn into burning pitch that will burn forever.  At the same time, owls and hyenas and buzzards will live there.

Edom had a prosperous national empire for several hundred years, then things started to go downhill and they were ultimately destroyed by Babylon in the 6th century BC.  What remained of the people were forced out of their territory, and they became sort of a satellite of Judea until, through assimilation, they more or less vanished altogether.

One could (and I would) argue that Isaiah 34 is describing this.  Yes, hyperbolic and cosmological language is being used, but this is typical of apocalyptic/prophetic judgement literature both inside and outside of biblical writings.  Edom is destroyed, their power is broken, their nation is razed, they never get it back, and they gradually disappear altogether from the world stage.

This, however, is unacceptable to the inerrantist.

Because stars were not actually destroyed and lands were not actually turned to burning pitch that never goes out, this prophecy (along with several Old Testament passages) is unfulfilled.  Since these things did not happen, the prophecy must be referring to a future event, where Edom will come into existence, again, and God will wipe it out in a format more literally appropriate to the imagery of Isaiah 34.  Oh, and somehow owls and other animals will have figured out a way to live in the burning pitch and sulfur.  Maybe technology will have advanced to that point by the time this prophecy occurs.  I’ve got my eye on you, owls.

Because, you see, the Bible says that, when this day happens, the skies will roll up and the stars will be destroyed.  And the soil will turn into sulfur and so on.  If Edom’s destruction and expulsion in the 6th century is what’s being described, then those verses are wrong.  Heck, lots of that stuff didn’t actually happen in the 6th century.  The Bible can’t be wrong, though, so it must be referring to something that just hasn’t happened yet (the last refuge of all “unfulfilled” prophecy).

Harmless?  Well, maybe within the walls of your Sunday School class, but you only need to look at the violence and death tolls on both sides of the Israel / Palestine conflict or America’s relationships with various nations in the Middle East and the strong evangelical influence in America’s policies in those areas to know that hermeneutics matter.  Sometimes, they’re life or death.

One of the ironies, here, is that if we just allowed the Bible to be “wrong,” (I don’t really consider the use of non-literal language to be wrong, but whatever) Isaiah 34 would be a strong statement of hope to the original audience that the God who they covenanted with would punish their oppressors and deliver them, and historical events would bear out the veracity of God’s words and purposes.  If Isaiah 34 is about some event in the far future, it has no value for the original audience and one wonders why it even needed to be in the Bible at all.  The only purpose it could possibly serve is just to demonstrate that prophecy works.  Ok, well, great, I guess.  Way to go, Isaiah.

We are losing our ability to hear the Bible because, instead of just letting it do its thing, we have to construct a meaning where the text is not “wrong,” and that becomes the meaning.  In some cases, maybe this makes little difference.  In other cases, it makes a big difference.  In all cases, if we really cared about the Bible the way we claim, we’d want to make sure we allowed it to be what it is, warts and all, instead of hammering it into a book that is “perfect” by our standards.

Inerrancy Makes God Deceptive

In some ways, we have to make a little room for this.  In 1 Kings 22:19-23, Micaiah says that God deliberately sent a spirit to give false prophecies to the other prophets because He wanted to lead Ahab into a trap.  Assuming this Scripture is inerrant, well, I guess we have to deal with this along with the inerrant Scripture in Titus 1:2 that declares that God cannot lie.

I haven’t looked, but I’ll bet there’s a fair share of articles explaining that God, technically, did not lie; He just deliberately sent a spirit who lied because God wanted him to lie, but He technically did not tell the lie, Himself.

This sort of argumentation litters inerrancy explanations of difficult passages or apparent contradictions.  God created the world with the appearance of being billions of years old, but it’s really only 6000 even though literally every method we have of determining age and progression says otherwise.  God gave a prophecy through an ancient Israelite to an ancient audience, but actually it’s meant for a future audience thousands of years later.  I know it probably looked to them like it was for them, but it wasn’t.

In order for inerrancy to work, we have maintain that God caused many things to appear a certain way only to discover that those appearances are false, in reality.

Along with this, the inerrantist God’s deception continues into narrative.

For instance, in Matthew and Mark, Mary Magdelene (and others) comes to the tomb, the stone is rolled away, and a single angel waiting there has a dialogue with her.  In Luke, two angels appear out of nowhere and explain things.  In John, she finds the stone rolled away and runs back to tell everyone that Jesus’ body has been stolen.

Now, folks, if you aren’t already committed to the idea that all of these stories have to be exactly correct in every detail – if you suspended that for a moment – and just read these separate accounts over time (and they were produced by very different people over a different span of time), would you ever come away from this thinking, “Yep, this is all a single, cohesive account that agrees in every detail?”

No, you wouldn’t, because they don’t.  You would most likely assume that each author had access to different information and, if you were familiar with ancient historiography, you would recognize that narratives are generally tweaked and shaped to fit the point the author is trying to get across, and this takes precedence over the objectivity of the report.

But, if we come to these stories with our preconceived beliefs about them and how they have to work, then we have to concoct some really intriguing apparatus to make them all actually be saying the same thing, more or less.

My favorite is the argument, “Well, if there were two angels, then there was one angel.”  That is mathematically correct.

However, keep in mind that these are narrative accounts, and if the inerrantist assumptions are correct, it’s actually very deceptive for Matthew and Mark not to mention the second angel and uproariously deceptive for John to omit them altogether and have Mary run back laboring under a misconception that the angel(s) correct in the other accounts.

If you asked your kid how many cookies he ate before dinner, and he said, “One,” and later you found that it was actually five, how would you feel if he said, “Well, technically, if I ate five, then I ate one, so what I said was the truth.”  Or, if your kid is John, “I ate no cookies, and I’m surprised you’re asking.  Oh, you know I ate five?  Well, of course.  How does that contradict what I said?”

Actually, I’d probably think that was pretty funny and let him off.  But regardless, we would never, ever, in any other circumstance use that mathematical reasoning to “explain” omissions.  Can you imagine a trial witness saying they saw one person commit a murder, then later it turns out that two people were involved, and they said, “Well, sure, I knew that going in, but I said one, didn’t I?  If there were two people involved, then there was one person involved, so what I said was still true.”  We’d have that person up for perjury.

My point isn’t that the gospel writers are required to report everything that happened.  I don’t believe that at all.  I think gospel writers are free to leave things out, move things around, put events in different places, and do so because their shaping of the story teaches us.  The differences teach us, which is precisely what they are meant to do.  We are supposed to have contradictory gospel accounts, and it’s not because God is a liar because God didn’t write them.  God uses them.

My point is, that if inerrantists are correct, it’s very difficult to say that God is trustworthy.  In both general and special revelation, He is making things appear a certain way, but it turns out the appearance isn’t the truth, but He is also directly responsible for both, so we have to concoct some technicality that gets Him off the hook.  Whole books have been written full of these technicalities to allow God to squeak by.

Ironically, many of these technicalities are not in the Bible.  Did the centurion at the foot of Jesus’ cross say, “Surely, this was a righteous man,” like Luke says or did he say, “Surely, this man was the Son of God,” like Matthew and Mark say?  Well, maybe the centurion said both of those things, or maybe there were two centurions and they each said one of those things.  Funnily enough, neither of those scenarios is in any of the gospels.  We have to make it up to make inerrancy work.  We almost literally have to add to the words of Scripture to make it inerrant.

But this is wholly unnecessary if we don’t come to the Bible with the assumption that every statement in it has to be factually true in every way a statement can be true according to our modern standards.

We Have Other Options

It is usually at this point that the strict inerrantist points out that, if the Bible is not inerrant, then it is wholly untrustworthy.  We can’t be sure what’s true and what isn’t, what really happened and what didn’t, and therefore we can place faith in none of it.

First of all, I would argue the inerrantist has this exact same problem.  Who knows what statements of Scripture appear to be true but are actually not the whole truth due to some technicality that gets God off the hook?  How do we know that God elected Israel?  How do we know God didn’t also elect Edom and it just didn’t work out?  I mean, if God elected two nations, He elected one nation, right?  How do we know there weren’t two or eight Sons of God?  How do we know that the world wasn’t created ten minutes ago, and God just created the world with the appearance that it is much older, including the presence of the Bible and the history within it?

Second, I would point out, before we even get out of the gates, that God wants our faith in trust in Him, not prophets and apostles, not the things they wrote down, but Him.  These other things may be trustworthy by virtue of God working through them, but God Himself is the epicenter of our trust.  Prophets and apostles point us to God, and insofar as they point us to the true God, they are trustworthy, but things like “perfection” and “all-knowing” belong to God alone.  Even if it turned out the Bible was totally untrustworthy (I do not think this at all), the true God who is there is there, and He was there before there was a Bible and He acted in the world before anyone put pen to parchment.  If every Bible in the world is destroyed by oppressors, God will still be there, and He will still be at work in the hearts of all those who are called by His name.  Most of the great heroes of our faith functioned without any kind of Scriptures at all.

Third, I would point out that most, if not all, of what the inerrantist or the critic might describe as “errors” in the Bible are really more problems with our expectations and interpretations.  If Isaiah 34 is talking about the historical destruction of Edom, I do not consider all the language about burning pitch and stars dying and owls and hyenas to be “errors.”  I consider them apocalyptic imagery used to get across the totality of Edom’s destruction to a people who suffer the predations of Edom who seems unstoppable to them.  If the world is billions of years old and it formed over a very long period of time, I do not consider Genesis 1 to be in “error” when it talks about six days.  I consider the six days to be a storytelling device that is used, primarily, to line up the various domains of the world with the rulers of those domains, culminating in the creation of man and experience of God being over all in the Sabbath.  Instead of making things fit my reading, I call my reading into question.  I allow my reading to be shaped by evidence.  It’s my understanding of the Bible that is fluid, negotiable, and often wrong – not the contents.  And it’s my expectations of it, such as that it’s an astronomy or a biology textbook, that can be grossly out of step with what God intends for it.

Fourth, I would point out that these ambiguities do not make the Bible untrustworthy or useless.  If that were the case, then every book ever produced would be untrustworthy and useless.  What book does not contain mistakes – at least as defined by a certain way of looking at them?  What book has not been shaped by its historical context?  What book does not have limitations, if nothing else than to its scope?  Does this actually mean that every book is useless and untrustworthy?

Well, no, not at all.  But what we have to do is approach books with knowledge of those parameters and shape our expectations accordingly.  When a young man writes his first love letter and says, “I thought of you as I watched the sun set,” the young lady does not spit on it and tear it up because that statement is not astronomically correct (the sun does not set).  I do not expect my car manual to give me information about George Washington, and if it did and was mistaken, it would not really affect the value the car manual has for me.

The question is, is the Bible useful (Paul’s word) for doctrine, reproof, and teaching righteousness so that we all might be equipped to do good works?

Yes.  Unflinchingly, unhesitatingly, yes.  Nice, inerrant statement.

Sunday Meditations: Begging the Question

“Begging the question” is not the same thing as “raising the question.”

Raising the question means that something happens or occurs to you that makes you want to ask a question.

Begging the question means you assume the truth of your conclusion as part of trying to prove your conclusion.  The phrasing is confusing because “begging” sounds like you’re asking for something and there actually isn’t a literal question involved.  You don’t actually ask a question when you beg the question.

Wrong:

“My roommate, who has been unemployed the whole time I’ve known him, just walked through the door wearing a Rolex and carrying a new plasma TV.  This begs the question: how did he afford all this?”

No, it raises the question, “How did he afford all this?”  It would be perfectly ok to say, “This raises the question: how did he afford all this?”  Or, “This prompts me to ask the question: how did he afford all this?”  Or even, “This demands that all right-thinking individuals ask themselves the question: how did he afford all this?”

But “begs the question” is the wrong expression to use because there’s nothing there about assuming the truth of unproven conclusions.  Something provokes you to ask questions; that is not begging a question.

Right:

“My roommate told me his brother never lied to him.  I asked him how he knew this.  He told me that, once, he accused his brother of lying, and his brother looked him in the eye and said, ‘I would never lie to you.’  I told him he was just begging the question.”

Here, your roommate has made a claim: My brother has never lied to me.  To prove this claim, your roommate refers to his brother’s statement that he has never lied to him.  The proof of the claim rests on the claim already being true.

See, if your roommate’s brother is a compulsive liar, of course he would still say, “I’ve never lied to you.”  And that would be a lie.  It doesn’t work.  You can’t prove the honesty of someone on the basis of their own insistence that they are honest.

In order to use the brother’s own statement that he has never lied, you have to believe he isn’t lying.  The evidence depends on you assuming that the conclusion is already true.  This is what it means to beg the question.

Another example:

“Jesus never existed.  I know because there is no evidence outside of the Bible that Jesus ever existed, like there is for other historical figures.  The mentions of Jesus outside of the Bible are obviously forgeries by Christians, because Jesus never actually existed.  Obviously they were made up.  Therefore, there’s no real evidence.”

This is begging the question.  In order for the arguments to work, the conclusion already has to be assumed to be true.  Once the question-begging train has left the station, it becomes an almost impenetrable argument.  What could you possibly show such a person to demonstrate extra-biblical evidence for Jesus’ existence?  Nothing, obviously, because it will always get rejected.  Such a person is assuming the truth of their conclusion and using it to evaluate evidence for that very conclusion.

Christians, themselves, are guilty of their own versions of question begging.

But this is not truly about claims about Jesus or the Bible or anything particularly spiritual.  I just get tired of people using the phrase “begs the question” wrongly.

What Did You Go Out to See?: Matthew 11:7-10

As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written,

‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
    who will prepare your way before you.’

 

Matthew 11:7-10 (NRSV)

This comes on the heels of messengers from John the Baptist who ask if Jesus is the Messiah Israel is expecting or if they should look for someone else.  Jesus answers them by pointing to the events that precede the Day of the Lord, and off they go.

It is here that Matthew records Jesus giving a sort of extended speech about John the Baptist, which is interesting considering how little air time he tends to get in the stories we tell amongst ourselves and from the pulpit.  His primary purpose is to announce Jesus, and when Jesus shows up, we don’t need him, anymore, so he drops off our radar very early on in the meta-gospel we have in our heads.  And, in fairness, he makes few other appearances in any of the gospels.

But here, we get a window into Jesus’ estimation of John the Baptist, both as a person and in terms of mission.

In the start of the John the Baptist speech, Jesus draws a contrast between John and the powers of his day.  You go to rich palaces to see rich people in fine clothes.  The “reed shaken by the wind” is an odd image, but may refer to Herod since Herod’s emblem was a reed.  The overall point is that, if you want to find the rich and powerful, you go to the palaces and there they are.

But people found John in the wilderness.  You go out to the wilderness to find prophets.

Jesus is going to make quite a bit out of John’s role as a prophet, so it helps to remember the often uneasy relationship between prophets and royalty in Israel’s history that only got worse as time went on.

You see, a prophet’s job was not primarily to predict the future, although that’s often what we think of when we think of prophets and prophecy.  A prophet’s job was primarily to speak for God, and this primarily for the purposes of calling them to repentance and forecasting the things that might befall them if they were unfaithful.  “Predicting the future” was a very small slice of what prophets did, and in most cases, their predictions were not so much spontaneous oracles as looking at the situation, seeing where Israel was going and what the landscape of powers looked like in and around her, and making a prediction and theological interpretation of what was likely to happen if she pursued her current course or turned aside from it.

When Israel’s rulers were interested in faithfulness, their relationship to prophets might have been awkward at times, but they were overall good.  We might think of David and Nathan, for example.

For much of Israel’s history, though, and especially the centuries immediately prior to Jesus’ day, this relationship was openly antagonistic.  It turns out that people in power do not care to be told that what they are doing is wrong and, unless they lead the people in justice and righteousness, God will bring a horrible calamity upon their regime.  Prophets found themselves in the wilderness often to hide from the powers that sought their lives moreso than the wilderness being a particularly spiritual place.  The wilderness was a season of trial from which they hoped to emerge vindicated, and we see this in both Israel’s history in general and Jesus’ history in specific.

So, we have the contrast as we have seen so often in Matthew.  On the one hand, we have the rich and the powerful and the established who may have the appearance of being favored by God but who are actually opposed by Him.  On the other hand, we have these dirty homeless guys ranting about those rich and powerful in their palaces.  It just so happens that God is on their side.

The quotation at the end of our passage is similar to the opening passages of Isaiah 40, but is more closely a quotation of Malachi 3:1.

We don’t know much about the book of Malachi.  Malachi simply means “My messenger” and, as such, may be the author’s title and not his name.  We also have no direct cues in the text as to what particular historical situation the writer is talking about.  Because the Temple has been rebuilt and certain Persian political terms appear, we have a general idea that it is probably around the 5th century BC, but specific nations and battles and monarchs and events that are prevalent in some of the other prophets are absent from Malachi.

Yet, Malachi paints a very clear picture of the situation he is prophesying against.  In Malachi, Israel’s priesthood is depicted as corrupt individuals going through the motions and lining their own pockets.  They are faithless professionals who have led Judah astray, and as a result, Israel’s God is no longer paying attention to her.  The wicked prosper, and people shrug their shoulders and assume that God must approve of them.  Others wonder where the God of justice is in the midst of this situation.

God then announces that He will send a messenger to prepare the way for Him to come into His Temple, but this messenger’s arrival will be a day of judgement that is to be endured as he “refines” the priesthood and purifies Israel.  When this happens, God will arrive and set things right, putting down the evil, exalting the good, and restoring Israel.

Malachi delivers this message to encourage the people of Israel to return to faithfulness, but the book closes on a rather ominous note – that God will send Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.

So, to recap, Israel’s leadership has become corrupt.  God seems absent.  The prophet calls the people to repentance and announces a messenger who will come and refine Israel, and this will immediately precede God coming to the Temple in judgement to throw down the wicked and rescue the faithful.

It is very appropriate, then, that Jesus will take this passage and announce that this is about what’s happening now because… well… I mean… come on, right?  This is exactly what’s happening in Israel in Jesus’ day.

And in this scenario, John is the messenger who refines Israel prior to the terrible Day of the Lord.  He is Elijah, as Jesus will mention in the very next set of verses.  John comes calling Israel to repentance, baptizing her into renewed faithfulness, and warning that the judgement of God on the powers of the age is near.  When Israel’s religious leaders show up, John quite clearly indicates that they are the very people who are supposed to fall in that judgement.  “You brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”

John the Baptist did not go to evangelism training.

All these things boil down to a powerful conclusion: Jesus’ expectation was that the great and terrible Day of the Lord was at hand, and John was the prophesied messenger sent to refine Israel before it happened.

It is interesting to me that Jesus does not identify himself as this messenger.  In fact, he even changes the text of Malachi (do not try this at home).  In the original passage, God announces that He will send a messenger to prepare the way before “me,” meaning God Himself, presumably.  When Jesus quotes the passage, God announces that He will send a messenger to prepare the way before “you,” which I assume is Jesus.  I’m not sure what other “you” Jesus would be talking about.

After all, Jesus also calls Israel to repentance, also leads her into renewed faithfulness, and also announces a coming judgement.  Very John-the-Baptisty kinds of things that, at least in this regard, seem to be a continuation of John’s mission.

But remember, Jesus has just sent a message back to John that Jesus is the expected Messiah, and he establishes this by pointing to the actual deeds he is doing – healing the sick, casting out demons, raising the dead.  It would seem that Jesus sees his role less in terms of forerunner and messenger and more in terms of instigator and implementor.  What John announced, Jesus has started doing.  It is Jesus who is not only calls Israel to repentance, but also forgives her sins.  It is Jesus who not only announces the coming kingdom, but also heals the lame and the blind and casts out demons.  It is Jesus who will take up all authority in heaven and on earth, given to him by God.  And it is Jesus who will judge the world, first to the Jew, and then to the Gentile.  Jesus may be announcing similar things to John, but where John was preparing Israel for an event, Jesus has brought the event with him.  Whereas John is preparing the way for what God will do, Jesus is how God is doing it.  Jesus is not Malachi’s Elijah; he is Daniel’s Son of Man.

We will explore the depth of this as Jesus continues to praise John the Baptist, but for this opening passage, it sets the stage.  John is the prophet speaking against the rich and powerful in Israel, and like the prophets before him, he is being persecuted by Israel’s leaders.  But this is what prophets do, and in this particular case, this prophet is the last warning before the great and terrible Day of the Lord.

Consider This

  1. Given what prophets actually did in the Scriptures, how does that influence how we might understand the gift of prophecy, today?  Are there people you know who are gifted in speaking for God to His people, calling them to greater faithfulness and warning of what might happen if they continue to go astray?  Do you do this?
  2. What is our responsibility in speaking to power?  How does power typically respond?  How does the church typically respond to power?

Are You the One?: Matthew 11:1-6

Now when Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and proclaim his message in their cities.

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

Matthew 11:1-6 (NRSV)

I had grown up in church, and yet it wasn’t until college that I actually ran across this passage – the one where John the Baptist questions whether or not Jesus is the expected Messiah.  I guess it might be one of those uncomfortable passages.  It sort of disrupts our narrative.  John the Baptist, the man who so forthrightly declared the arrival of the Messiah in Jesus, is not supposed to question this, have second thoughts, and demand some answers from that same Jesus.

But this occurs during the period of time when Jesus sends his disciples out to prepare towns for his arrival.  They are supposed to proclaim the kingdom, forgive sins, heal, cast out demons – basically all the things that Jesus has been doing this entire time.

It is because Jesus’ ministry has been characterized by this that we can sympathize with John’s confusion.  First you overthrow the bad guys, then you restore Israel.  Jesus, by contrast, seems to be about the work of restoring Israel, but the bad guys are still in power.  In fact, John himself is rotting away in Herod’s prison.

What’s supposed to happen, from John’s perspective, is that Jesus brings the judgement with him.  He’s supposed to defeat Herod in an epic sword fight, put all Israel’s corrupt leaders to the sword or drive them out, and ultimately break Roman power over the land.  When John talks about the coming Messiah earlier in Matthew, it is all in terms of the coming judgement.  In fact, when Pharisees and other religious leaders show up, John pointedly asks them, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”

And John’s not wrong.  The prophetic hopes as well as the established pattern of God working in Israel’s history are that she undergoes a time of troubles, but when she repents and calls to God for help, He destroys the powers that threaten her and restores her to safety.  I can’t tell you how many Christian sermons and commentaries I have read that say that the people of Jesus’ day were mistaken to expect this, and I do not agree with this at all.  They had every reason to expect this.  In fact, if anyone suggested that all these Old Testament events and prophecies were really describing what the coming Messiah would do spiritually, and no one should actually expect God to do what He had done several times up to that point, they probably would not have gotten a favorable hearing, and rightly so.

It is true that the pictures we have of God’s deliverance in the prophetic imagination also have a spiritual component.  In these visions, God wants to win Israel back, and she returns to Him in faithfulness and repents of her sins, and He forgives her and restores their broken relationship.  But the wrath, salvation, deliverance, and restoration of God always manifests as a historical event; it does not happen exclusively or even primarily within the chambers of an individual Israelite’s heart, even though it certainly includes the changing of that heart.

It is also noteworthy that Jesus continues John’s message; he doesn’t correct it.  Jesus, too, will announce a coming calamity that Israel will only survive if she repents of her sins and turns back to her God in faithfulness.  The wrath of God is at the doorstep, and everyone needs to deal with this situation right now.  There is no time to work your repentance into your long-term planning.  Following Jesus does not get added to your Five Year Goals.  The building has caught fire and you need to get out now before the boilers explode.

So, we need to put ourselves in John’s shoes.  You are a prophet.  In your heart burns the message of an imminent judgement that the Messiah would herald, and with it comes your deep compassion and sense of mission to the lost of Israel to help her prepare herself to make it through.  And now the Messiah is here!  The clock has struck!

But what happens in the world?

This Messiah goes around proclaiming that the kingdom is at hand.  Yes, we agree with that.  The judgement is near and all must repent and trust in Jesus.  Yes, quite so.  Jesus has the authority to forgive Israel’s sins and is going about doing this.  Ok, that’s a little weird, but God forgives sins as part of delivering Israel, so ok.  Jesus is demonstrating that the kingdom is near and that sins are forgiven by healing people and casting out demons.  Ok, well….  And now Herod has put you in prison.  Ok, seriously, what is going on here?

Where is this imminent judgement?  Where is the whole setting the world back to rights?  I’m here.  The Messiah is here.  Israel is responding.  What’s the deal?  Why am I in prison?  Why does Herod even still have his head attached?  Where are the consuming flames that burn away the chaff?  Where is the winnowing fork the Messiah would wield to eliminate the weeds that have sprung up in Israel?  Everything seems to be right about the timing and the circumstances, so what gives?

Well, maybe we got the wrong guy.

What if Jesus isn’t the Messiah?  What if I was supposed to prepare the way for someone else?  What if someone is out there like that Barrabas guy or that Judas Iscariot who was always making trouble for the government, and that’s who I was supposed to be guiding people to?  What if I need to tell my followers to look for the real Messiah so we can get this program back on track?

I hope you can see where this is all coming from.  I hope we are not judging John too harshly, looking back on it.  Who among us can’t resonate with the idea that God has promised a world that looks a certain way, but when we look around us, it looks very little like that, and we begin to have second thoughts?

Jesus is not in the least upset.  In fact, in the next few verses, he can’t say enough good things about John the Baptist.  I get my hackles raised when someone questions my decision to get burgers for lunch, but John questioned Jesus’ very identity and mission as the Messiah, and he appears to be totally fine with it.  But he also doesn’t leave John where he is.

Jesus quotes a bit from Isaiah 35, and he makes a few additions to the list: raising the dead and cleansing the lepers – both things Jesus has done.

Isaiah 35 comes at the end of an extended description of what God will do for Israel to restore her fortunes.  This description spans chapters.  Near the beginning, the oppressor is Assyria, but as we get into the neighborhood of chapter 34, Babylon gets identified.  These chapters are followed by a huge Assyrian invasion and the faithfulness of the king in the midst of it.

John knows this.  John knows that God gave this word to his people while they were in the midst of oppression.  He knows that it got a lot worse before it got better.  He knows that these promises were intended to give Israel faith and hope that would keep them faithful even when the heat turned up, which it did.

Jesus is bringing Isaiah into his day to help John understand what is going on.

The great things described in Isaiah 35 are happening.  The great day of the Lord in this age is imminent!  But remember, John, Israel still had to hang on.  The worst of her oppression was yet to come, but at no point did that invalidate the promise of God.  You may be in a prison cell right now, but Assyria and Babylon are dust.  God will do what He said, and the fact that you are seeing the healing and deliverance that you’re hearing about is the proof.  Be faithful and steadfast, even though the oppression around you may increase.

We do not know what John’s response to this was.  We do not know if he threw up his hands in frustration or nodded thoughtfully and returned to his prayers with a renewed faith and determination.  I like to think it was more the latter.

When we hear about John, again, it will be in chapter 14 when he is executed by Herod.

We do not know what John’s last thoughts were as he faced the sword.  We do not know if he thought his life was a failure or if he was full of regret.  But the author of Hebrews may give us a clue:

And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented— of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.

Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.

Hebrews 11:32-40 (NRSV, emphasis mine)

All these died in faith, seeing the promises far off.  For John, those promises were actually very near, nearer than to anyone in the list the author of Hebrews presents.  Yet, he would not see the deliverance he proclaimed in his flesh.

And surely, centuries earlier, there would be those in Israel who had received the promise of deliverance, but fell to Assyrian swords or languished in Babylonian slave pens.  Isaiah told them to wait upon the Lord, for the great day was near.

Look, John, from the doors of your prison.  The blind receive their sight.  The lame leap for joy.  The lepers are cleansed.  And the dead, John?  Those who have died in their faith?  THEY ARE RAISED.

Deliverance is coming, John.  It is coming for Israel.  It is coming for those in prison.  It is even coming for those who have died.  Lift up your head, in that terrible, dark, damp cell, for your salvation draweth nigh.

Consider This

  1. What promises do we have from God, today, and what circumstances around us make it difficult to believe them?  Can we, like John, take any comfort from God’s promises and actions in the past?
  2. What things has God provided to help His people remain faithful and hopeful as we continue to wait in faithfulness?

Sunday Meditations: Biblical Distance

I’ve been having conversations with my good friend Bill, who is a very sharp thinker and is a Christian Who Means It and has taught me a lot – directly and indirectly – of what it means to work through being a Christian who has a relative level of prosperity.  We’ve been talking about what happens to us after we die.

That was almost what I wrote about, today, because that conversation and others have made me think about this topic a lot, but yesterday, Bill had mentioned several passages from various parts of the Bible with some exploratory thoughts on each one and different ways we might look at them, and one thing that struck me was whether or not we should read an account like Saul speaking with the ghost of Samuel in 1 Samuel 28:3-25 differently than, say, Luke’s account of Jesus telling the thief on the cross that, today, he would be with him in paradise (Luke 23:39-43).

I’m going to say yes, although it’s not because one of the passages involves a ghost.  That’s a whole different topic.  What I’ve been thinking about is the relative distance of biblical passages from the events they describe and what impact that has on how we read them.

Before I get too far into this, I want to remind people who maybe are reading my posts for the first time that this blog is largely an experiment for me.  That’s one of the reasons I don’t put my real name on it or turn on comments.  It’s primarily for me to work through ways of understanding the Bible and my faith, and if that happens to be helpful to others, I’m very glad.  I did put it on the Internet, after all, so I hope that does happen.

However, it also means that sometimes I’ll bounce off a few walls to see how it goes.  I may write things that I don’t agree with perhaps even months later.  I doubt I’ll look back on all this in five years and discover that I continued to hold on to all these thoughts.  My own history teaches me that I cannot afford to be too dogmatic at any stage in life because I change, and the thing I feel 100% certain of today becomes next year’s rejected hypothesis.

So, while this meditation does reflect where I’m at, and if you actually know me in person and want to talk about it, please do, but also keep in mind that I’m just working through these things the same as anyone, and God is kind and merciful to me while I do it, so I encourage you to adopt a similar posture.

When we think about the production of a scroll that eventually ended up in the Bible, there are a number of things to keep in mind, but for the purposes of this meditation, I’m only going to look at two.

One: The Way Ancient History Works

I’ve written about this, before.  The upshot is that the idea that a good historiography is one that is the most objective and accurate account of exactly how the events happened is, relatively speaking, a very modern development.

It’s such a common assumption to us that it seems almost absurd to evaluate a historical document by any other standard.  If a writer tells us exactly what happened in a manner that closely matches the actual events, and if they avoid injecting their own views and interpretations into the narrative, that is “good” and “reliable” history.  If a record deviates from what actually happened and/or includes a great deal of interpretation or speculation on the part of the author, that is “bad” and “unreliable” history.

This, however, has not been the case for the majority of the activity of writing history and was certainly not the case in the ancient world.  True, the basic activity is similar – someone is trying to communicate the past in the present, and this largely fails if there is no correspondence at all between what the historian is writing and what happened at the time.  However, historians to this day typically have some kind of agenda for producing their history other than communicating rote events, and nowhere is this more evident than in the ancient world.  The concept of something like a news report simply did not exist.  Instead, history was written to teach lessons, sway politics, bolster or destroy reputations, create common mission or identity, or provide an explanation for current circumstances.

This does not make ancient historical documents useless for determining what “really” happened; it does mean that we have to have our expectations set correctly, and the reality of how and why these histories were written have to be worked into how we understand them.

By analogy, take Pablo Picasso’s “The Old Guitarist:”

1200px-old_guitarist_chicago

The Old Guitarist, Pablo Picasso

I have doubts that this painting has an exact correspondence to an actual old guitarist and, if it does, Picasso needed to quit painting and get someone some serious medical assistance.  His flesh is a zombie grey-blue and his neck is bent at an angle that even a contortionist would have trouble replicating.  This is actually one of the more realistic paintings Picasso has done.

But Picasso’s intent is not to give us a photo-realistic portrayal of an old guitarist – it’s to present the vision he has in his head as he thinks about an old guitarist and present him in a way that communicates the misery, melancholy, and tragedy of the subject.  Ancient historiography was a lot like this.  It was more art than science.  It beckons us to enter into the historiographer’s world and see, not the actual events as they happened, but see the events through his eyes and thoughts.

Whenever we read an account of an event in the Bible, we have to keep in mind that we are reading someone else’s interpretation of those events after the fact, presented to us in such a way as to get the writer’s point across moreso than to give us details about the fact of the event itself.

This leads us to the second consideration.

Two: Biblical Distance

A biblical passage as we know it was not created until after the events they describe and, in many cases, a very long time after the events they describe.  That doesn’t mean that other stories and traditions about the event didn’t exist before the passage came into its final format, but it does mean that what we read is reaching back, not just days, but often decades or even centuries (or longer) to the events it describes.  Often, those other stories, accounts, and traditions floating around heavily influence what we end up getting, either in support of them or in reaction against them.

I do not have Andrew Perriman’s talent for creating diagrams, but if I were to make a diagram, I might start on the left side with Genesis 1.  There would be a dot near the bottom representing the actual events, and another dot way at the top to represent the recording of the text of Genesis 1.  Just a huge, massive span of time between them.

I would then extend the timeline(s) to the right, with the gap shrinking as we move through the Pentateuch and get into the records of the kings of Israel, then taking a huge drop when we get to the Exilic and Post-Exilic writings – now the distance between the event and the record is much shorter, comparatively speaking, even though we’re still talking about potentially centuries depending on what passage we’re looking at.

When we get to the Gospels, the distance between the dots gets even closer, although we’re still talking about decades.  Finally, with the other New Testament documents (Revelation being an exception, since it reverses the trend), the distances become much shorter, as Paul will even write multiple letters to the same church.

In this vein, it’s important that, even when we look at the Gospels, even if we believe the Gospels were written by the names tradition has associated with them (and that is a big “if” that, in some circumstances, seems barely plausible), they were some time after the fact.

Take, for instance, the Gospel of Luke.  Even if we hold that Luke the physician wrote that Gospel, he begins the Gospel by saying that “many” have already endeavored to write accounts of Jesus and what happened around him, and the reason he’s decided to write his own gospel is basically to set the record straight.  So, note, this is a decision Luke would have come to after other gospels had been written, by his own admission.  In other words, Luke would not have been walking around with a notebook making copious documentation of everything for a gospel he planned to write, later.

He and the other gospel writers are going off their own memories, other people’s accounts they also remember after the fact, other written accounts, stories, traditions, hearsay, and best guesses at filling in the gaps.  What we read in the Gospel of Luke is not an objective recitation of eidetic memory, nor is it Luke going back over his copious notes he took while traveling around with Jesus and the other apostles.  It is a narrative reconstruction of events that, by this time, would be at the very least a few decades in the past.

If you think this might create some dissonance between what Luke wrote down and what literally occurred when the event happened, I would say that you are probably right, and the differences between the Gospel accounts, although they are rarely big differences, seems to indicate this.

Now, imagine this occurring over a span of hundreds, or perhaps thousands (in the case of much of the Pentateuch) of years.  The distance between the record and the event becomes massive.  By the time anyone writes the texts that became what we know today as Exodus, the distance between that writing and an actual Moses is difficult to comprehend.  It would be like you, today, writing about Leif Erikson’s attempt to settle America without any of the benefit of any modern historical research.  All you could use to write that history was what you’d heard, what people you’d talked to had heard, and whatever remaining vestiges of Leif Erikson’s story were in the air in America or Norway, today.

Granted, the role of oral tradition and tribal memory was much sharper in ancient times because it was the primary way information was communicated, and it is also true that stories of Moses were more foundational to Israel’s culture and identity than Leif Erikson is to modern day America, but still, memory is still memory and stories behave the way stories behave and a thousand years is a long time to play the Telephone Game.

So, when we read the account of Saul consulting a medium to talk to the ghost of Samuel, apart from the metaphysical difficulties this passage raises, we also have to keep in mind that there is a large historical gulf between the recording of this story and when the event might have actually occurred.  It is unlikely this story was just fabricated out of nowhere when 1 Samuel was written, but it is also unlikely that it is basically a transcript.

Did a ghostly Samuel appear for all to see and make these dire pronouncements?  Did these things all come from the medium, herself, speaking on Samuel’s behalf?  Did Saul go for a walk with his entourage because he was at the end of his rope since the prophets weren’t talking, and he suggested all kinds of crazy appeals to other gods or diviners, and someone just snapped and said, “Saul, Samuel never would have put up with this crap.  We’re going to lose to the Philistines because we’ve turned against the God who has brought us this far.  That’s why the prophets aren’t talking, and if you think talking to some spiritist is a good idea, well, that’s just going to make things worse,” and it turned into a story where Saul did go see a medium and Samuel’s ghost said all that?  Did a chronicler many years later try to figure out why King Saul could not be victorious over the Philistines as opposed to King David, and he knows the characteristics of Saul’s reign, and with that in conjunction with various stories and traditions about Saul, he figures something like this probably happened?

Somewhere between those polarities is our passage.  It is Israel’s story, and it communicates to her and us a message – a purposeful, intended message.

But that very purpose of communicating a message also makes it shaky grounds for a metaphysic about the afterlife.

The Little Ones: Matthew 10:40-42

“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”

Matthew 10:40-42 (NRSV)

When I first started this blog, I sort of randomly chose passages to write about, but I found that I had to spin up so much background and context before talking about the actual passage that I shifted to going sequentially, hoping that previous posts would establish the necessary background for later posts.

While this has generally been the case, Matthew 10 contains so many passages that are often dealt with in isolation from one another that I feel like I have to keep harping on the context with every section.

As always, when we read this passage, we need to keep in mind that this is part of a speech that Jesus is giving to his disciples who are about to go out into the world with the message of the kingdom and doing the works of Jesus.  They are going to encounter severe resistance and persecution.  Jesus is warning them that this is inevitable and they have reasons to stay faithful in the midst of it, not the least of which being that their oppressors will perish in the coming judgement, but God will shepherd the souls of the faithful disciples through it.

Please see previous posts for the fleshing out of all of that.

This passage, then, is not so much about generic humanitarianism as it is about how the world will treat the disciples as they are about their work.  There may be some bearing on generic humanitarianism, though, and I’ll circle back around to that.

In this passage, Jesus pronounces that, as the disciples go out, those who give them aid and comfort will receive the same reward as those who are faithful – “righteous,” no less.  When the coming catastrophe comes, God will not only take care of Jesus’ followers, He will also take care of those who took care of Jesus’ followers.  The reasoning behind this is, when they show hospitality to the disciples who are being persecuted by everyone else, they are showing hospitality to their master (Jesus, if you’re following along).  If they show hospitality to Jesus, they show hospitality to the one who sent him – God.

To sum up: their good works on behalf of the disciples will be accounted to them as righteousness.  I assume that causes no issues for anyone.  That’s a joke.

Because we are prone to come to the Bible with a theological framework in place, and we let that framework dictate what passages must mean, we can wrangle this however we want.  We can hypothesize that the sorts of people who care for the disciples do so after coming to saving faith and converting, for instance.  And, you know, that probably happened in some cases.

But that’s not actually what Jesus says, is it?  He doesn’t say, “If someone believes your message and repents of their sins and has faith in me and then takes care of you, he will have the reward of the righteous.”  It’s actually a very simple proposition.  God will give the reward for righteousness to the people who do good to the righteous.

Probably the closest parallel thought will come later in Matthew in chapter 25:

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

Matthew 25:31-46 (NRSV)

It’s the same thing in parable form, complete with images of eternal fire, eternal life, and eternal punishment.  At the end of the present age when God’s judgement comes, there will be a group of people who identified with all the right things who will not make it through the judgement.  There will be another group of people who have no idea when they ever did anything for God, but because they took care of Jesus’ people, they took care of him and are rewarded with the reward of the righteous.

I love the little dialogues in that parable.  We have Jesus actually trying to convince a group of people that God will reward that they deserve it, and the people themselves are like, “Um, we think you’ve got the wrong people.  We never did anything for you, trust us.”  And Jesus is all, “Oh, yes you did.  All that time you thought you were just doing good to someone in need, you were actually serving ME!  So, hah!  Suck on THAT!  Here’s your eternal life, doofuses!”

We want to make sure, before we make too much theological hay out of all of these, we come back to the historical contingencies that bring Jesus to these announcements.  Jesus’ disciples are about to go into the world saying what he said and doing what he did, and the corrupt power structure of Israel herself will persecute them, and they are not afraid to bring in the muscle of the Roman Empire to do it.

Those who will, in the face of this persecution, defy these powers and take care of Jesus’ disciples instead of turning them in or turning them out will be rewarded.  The Old Testament version of this is Joshua 2.  Two spies go into Jericho in advance of Israel destroying it.  A resident of Jericho hides the spies.  She survives the invasion and, as far as we know, lives a long and happy life in the land.  Another example, possibly closer to Jesus’ mind given his example of the prophets, could be 1 Kings 17, where a widow takes in Elijah during the reign of Ahab whose wife is killing God’s prophets.  She takes care of this lonely, persecuted prophet who the royal family wants dead, and in return, she receives an unending supply of income and her son is raised from the dead.

And it is perhaps the recurrent historical pattern that makes us wonder if the particular historical situation in Matthew 10 isn’t another instance of the Way God Works in History.  Because, if it is, our theology ought to make room for it.

In fairness, we can’t simply reduce the situation to people doing good works and getting good stuff.  In Matthew 7, for instance, we are confronted with the truth that the very religious power structure that will persecute Jesus has people who are prophesying and casting out demons and working miracles in Jesus’ name, yet Jesus calls them “evildoers.”  So, some level of internal alignment seems to matter, here.  What are the motives for these deeds, and how are they used, and who truly benefits?

But at the same time, we also cannot escape the very simple principle that Jesus articulates that seems to be reliably demonstrated in several instances in the Bible spread out over centuries – when the faithful are persecuted, the people who care for them instead of handing them over are also given the reward of the faithful, even if they have absolutely no clue that they are doing it for Jesus or are basically just pagans who recognize the realities of their situation.  And maybe that’s all the mustard seed-sized faith it takes.

There are Christian theologians who, regrettably, have written about the “fate” of unbelievers with a sort of perverse glee that the horrors of eternal torment will finally show them what’s what.  Some have even said that part of what makes heaven heaven will be that believers will be able to view the endless torment of all those who did not believe.  And we wonder why we make people edgy, right?  That’s sociopathic.

But I, too, take a perverse glee when I think of unbelievers at the final judgement, because I can’t help but wonder if there won’t be at least a segment of them to whom God says, “Hey, you know when you built all those homes for Habitat for Humanity because you wanted to show that atheists could be philanthropists?  Well, you built those houses for ME!  How do you like them apples?  Stick that in your empirical positivism and smoke it!  Welcome to the new heavens and earth, nerds!”

Ok, it probably won’t go quite like that, but still.

Consider This

  1. Even to this day, there are countries where Christians are actively persecuted.  There are countries where people of all kinds of religions are actively persecuted.  What should our stance be toward that?  What are some things we can do about it?  What can we do when we see low-level persecution in small ways around us?
  2. If God commends those who do not know Him for taking care of His followers, how much more ought we to be zealous for taking care of His followers?

Sunday/Monday Meditations: Nothing New Under the Sun

Pete Enns reposted an article that I really liked.  I started to write him an email about it, but it began to go longish, and I realized it earned “meditation” status, especially since I didn’t do one for this last Sunday.  A bit of warning – Pete’s article is about the cycles of generations passing away, so the mood it will leave you in is, best case scenario, pensive.  This post you’re reading will probably be similar.

I am in my early forties, and the kinds of things Pete talks about are things I have started to try and come to grips with.  I thought my thirties were my official separation from youth, but for some reason, my mortality didn’t really hit me, nor did the idea of the passing away of everything that was a frame of reference to me at one point.  But it does, now, and I wish I could say I always handled it with the gentle acceptance Pete portrays in his post.  Sometimes I do; sometimes I don’t.  I tend to skew more toward the “rage, rage against the dying of the light” way of dealing with it, but I think that’ll change with time.  Lord, I truly hope so (that is a prayer).

I moved around a lot when I was a kid, so I don’t have a single childhood home per se.  There is one that I lived in for most of elementary school, and that’s the one I think of when I think of childhood homes.  I thought about my room.  I thought about how the overhang of the second floor and the bushes lining the front made for a sort of tunnel I used to duck into and play behind when I was a kid.  I thought of watching TV and playing in a family room that seemed, to me, to be truly massive.  I thought of my own room, reading a sci-fi book (yes, I have been a nerd for a really long time) and munching on a Dole pineapple juice bar.

There is another family in that house, now.  They have their own furniture and decorations.  Other children are growing up in that house.  Whole new lives and stories are being spun out in those walls that held my own vitality and stories as I grew up, and when that family is gone, a new one will move in and create a new world there of their own.

In the house we lived in when I was in high school, someone else will be thinking their relationship with some girl is the most important thing anyone could possibly be thinking about.  Someone else will be dealing with their insecurities, working through their spiritualities, and heading out to do stupid things with their friends.  Someone else will be mowing that lawn in the summer, resentful of the time it takes away from them to do absolutely nothing at all, because all they have is time.  And when those people are gone, someone new will live out new dramas where they are the center of the world and life is all about what comes next.

I wonder if the people who live in those houses would let me in if I came by and introduced myself.  I wonder if I would cry, seeing those spaces through my eyes now and what they’ve become for someone else, or how different the reality seems to me at my age and my height.  My eyes certainly aren’t what they used to be when I was ten, either.

Other people are on the Park Hill debate team.  They have another captain, and whoever was captain after me is long gone and replaced by another and another.  Those bleachers are filled with different people watching Homecoming rallies or basketball games, enjoying those moments when everyone – no matter what your clique – is friends as you join against a common enemy.  Other parents have come to watch their kids on the auditorium stage.  In twenty years, it’ll be yet another set.

Our current culture in the modern West has done a good job isolating us from death.  The average lifespan is no longer forty.  People do not have children expecting that only one or two will survive.  You don’t have to go back very far to find a time when a relative who passed on did so in the family’s house, and someone sat up with the body for a night, and they were buried in a small cemetery at their home or the village church.  Everyone in all ages was intimately acquainted with death as a part of the cycle of life.  It wasn’t strange or jarring.

But now you live twice as long as your ancestors.  You die in a hospital full of other people who are also fighting for life.  Your body is sent to a funeral home.  Death is something we hide away and try to forget about, like some deeply unpleasant secret shame every family shares.  While this may serve to keep our lives a little bit sunnier as we do not think regularly about death, it makes the thing itself seem more like a fundamental disjunction in reality instead of just what naturally happens.  It is a shock, and it is something to dread, avoid, fight, or even keep from talking about in any kind of concrete way.

Fifty years ago, my grandfather was coming to terms with the fact that he would die, someday.  A hundred years ago, his father was, too.  Somewhere centuries down the line, one of my ancestors thought about his life, his family, everything he had done, and contemplated that it would end.  All those people are gone, now, and someday so shall I.  Someday, my sons will enter their forties if the Lord wills and begin to think about these things, and their children.  One day, my grandchild will think about their grandfather passing away.  And his grandchild will think about his grandfather passing away.

To me, these are sad thoughts.  I want to cry even typing them out.  And I’m all right with that.  The instinct is to jump in with some comforting thoughts like the resurrection or what have you, but I don’t think I want to paste over this with doctrine.  This is the window to reality that Ecclesiastes gives us, and in some form or fashion, that message is from God.

This is the way things are and will be, and only a fool does not come to terms with it.

But I will allow myself a little bit of doctrine to seep in, I suppose.  That’s who I am.  My identity does not belong to me and never did.  My who-I-am-ness is something that is a gift.  I did not create myself or construct my consciousness.  It was given to me for meaningful use.  The God who gave it to me will have it back, one day, and it is up to Him to superintend that.  It is into His hands that I commit my spirit, and no other.  And while I do not know exactly what He’s going to do with it, or how, or when – I trust Him with it, and perhaps that is the seed of making peace with death before I die.

Bringing a Sword: Matthew 10:34-39

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.

For I have come to set a man against his father,
and a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.

Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

Matthew 10:34-39 (NRSV)

It’s always a little awkward when Jesus says things like, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”  It seems to run counter to Jesus’ commitments to loving enemies and not hitting them with swords when they come to arrest you in gardens.  What is worse, Jesus specifically says that this conflict will turn family members against each other and offers that anyone who loves their family members more than Jesus is not worthy of him.

It’s like some kind of Hard Sayings of Jesus marathon.

As we try to see how all these things fit into the story, the first thing we need to keep in mind is where we’re at in the story.  Jesus is warning his disciples about the persecution they will experience as they announce the coming kingdom, forgive sins, and heal.  He encourages them to stay the course in spite of their persecution, however, because a terrible judgement is coming against Jerusalem, and their oppressors will fall in that judgement.  It will be better to remain faithful and be saved through the judgement than to give up the work and fall in the judgement.

That is the backdrop for these comments – a judgement is about to fall on “institutional” Israel because of what she has become.  This judgement is going to take the form of a war with Rome that is not going to end well for Jerusalem.

We have already seen how Jesus incorporates Jeremiah’s warnings to Israel in his own warning, and it happens again in this passage.

There are numerous places where Jeremiah talks about the sword coming to Israel.  Jeremiah 12 uses the image in response to the fact that “the shepherds have destroyed my vineyard,” referring to the fact that Israel’s leaders have ruined her.  Thus, the sword is coming.

Only a bit later, in Jeremiah 14, the prophet talks about both a sword and famine coming against the land, and he points out that family members will not even be able to bury the slain.  This passage is particularly apt because Jeremiah is contrasting himself with the false prophets who are telling everyone that these are days of peace and prosperity.

Another Old Testament prophet who announced a coming judgement upon Israel was Micah, and it is perhaps Micah 7 that Jesus has in mind in this passage, because Micah speaks of family members turning against each other when the day of punishment is at hand.

So, when Jesus says he has not come to bring peace to the land (gen), but a sword, he is not declaring that he has specifically come to start attacking people or instigate family members to start attacking one another.  He is announcing to Israel what the prophets have announced before him – God is bringing the sword against Israel, and it is happening in the form in which it historically happens: assault from another nation’s army.  Violence and famine and tribulation are not far off, but rather are very near, and Jesus is the harbinger.

The appropriate response from Israel should have been what it always should have been to the true prophets who announced this: repentance and restoration of the nation’s commitments to pursuing justice and returning to the worship of her God.  This is what Jesus is going around trying to get people to do, and in response, he announces God’s forgiveness, an end to the curse, and the dawning of the kingdom.

But this is where the conflict comes in that will turn families against each other.  Not everyone wants to do this.  In fact, many are fine with the way things are and would like it to stay that way.  The conflict does not originate between Israel and another nation; the conflict erupts within Israel herself, and it knows no distinction but those who believe Jesus and those who don’t.

As in the days of Micah, the faithful cannot count on their friends and families to be allies now that the day of judgement is at hand.  They must look to the Lord for their salvation.

This is what Jesus is telling his disciples now that this situation is about to take hold.  He is not telling them that he has come to be violent.  Nor is he asking them to examine their passions and make sure that they feel more love for Jesus than they do for their family members.  He is telling them what the prophets have always told them – the sword is about to be brought against Israel, and on that day, only those who follow me and my path will be saved.  You cannot count on anything else to carry you through that day – not even your own family members and loved ones – and if you do, you will fall in it.

It is this that Jesus sums up for his disciples in the very pithy statement: if you cling to your life, you will lose it.  If you give it up for my sake, you will receive it.

When Jesus talks about taking up the cross, it is important to remember that he had not yet been crucified.  He may very well have foreseen that as the inevitable conclusion to what he was doing, but when he tells his disciples to take up their cross, their point of reference is not the crucifixion of Jesus; their point of reference was getting killed by Rome.  That’s what crosses are for when Jesus is talking to them.  Crosses are how Rome executes her political enemies: rebels, criminals, insurrectionists.  Crosses are how Rome shows her power over those she has conquered.  In our day, we might say, “Get your blindfold and last cigarette, have your last meal, say your last words, and follow me.”  Jesus calls his disciples to experience that now.  Now, before you go out into the world, holster up your cross and get ready to walk a path that could cost you your life.

The disciples will experience persecution and even martyrdom if they faithfully follow Jesus to the end.  But if they do, they will save their lives, and even if they are killed, they will be restored to life by God.  But if they are not willing to do this – if they give it all up to go back to their lives as they knew them – they will not survive.

If they believe Jesus’ announcements and do what he says they will survive it and enjoy a new life in the age to come.  There is nothing overly spiritual about this.  It’s the hard, historical reality that faces Jesus’ disciples in the first century.  Stay the course and live, abandon it and die.

Two options, two paths, two kinds of people.  It is dire news for all those who are making the most of Israel’s plight, but it is very, very good news for the broken poor who have longed in their hearts for restoration.

Consider This

  1. What sorts of upcoming crises do you think the Church faces, today?  In that context, what would it mean to remain faithful to God as opposed to giving up the life He has called you to?
  2. In what ways are we encouraged to think of ourselves as dead in advance?  What things are we dead to, and what things have we been given new life to walk in?

Who Acknowledges Me: Matthew 10:32-33

“Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.”

Matthew 10:32-33 (NRSV)

A quick recap of Matthew 8-10 up to this point:

  1. Jesus is bringing the coming kingdom, forgiving Israel of her sins and overturning the penalties for her sins, demonstrated by healing and casting out demons.
  2. Jesus is moved by the plight of how lost and oppressed his people are and realizes he can only do so much, himself.
  3. Jesus commissions a group of disciples with his own authority to spread out among the people, making the same proclamation and accompanying it with the same deeds of forgiveness, healing, and liberation.
  4. Jesus warns that this increased activity will draw the attention of the powers that be, inviting opposition and persecution for all of them.
  5. Jesus encourages his disciples that their opposition will fall in a judgement that they, themselves, will survive – if nothing else than by resurrection and glorification – and that no matter what happens to them, God knows, cares, and will act.

There is a flip side to all this, however.

Jesus knows that, when persecution heats up, the temptation will be strong to give all of this up and go back to fishing or whatever the disciples were doing before they decided to follow Jesus.  It might not even take persecution; they may be tempted to give it up the first night they have to go hungry because they can’t find someone to give them food and shelter for the night.  Giving up the kingdom and going back to trying to eke out a reasonably comfortable existence is both a reasonable and attractive option to consider in the face of persecution.

When a disciple is dragged in front of the Sanhedrin, perhaps beaten, and commanded to stop proclaiming that the kingdom has come and Jesus is its king under the threat of imprisonment or death, it would be so easy just to say, “Ok,” and get back to your regular life.  You think about your family.  You think about your own well-being.  You think about pain.  You think about your fears for the future.

And at this stage in the game, you may have seen what you consider miracles, but you still don’t know how all this is going to turn out.  There has been no resurrection nor ascension.  In fact, persecution from this age’s powers is something you’d expect not to happen if Jesus were the actual expected Messiah.  You’d expect the Sanhedrin would be in prison begging for mercy, not the other way around.  Healing people is all fine and good, but now the people in power are about to regulate, and Jesus’ counsel is to… suck it up?  Try and hang in there?

That doesn’t sound like a conquering king, does it?

These disciples in the first century had far more at stake and far less reasons to hang in there than many of us do in the West.  We’re petrified that a co-worker might make fun of us, but these disciples would have given anything for mockery to be their worst case scenario.  In other parts of the world, today, that’s still the case.

But always, always, Jesus in Matthew draws us back around to the fundamental decision: Do you want to stand and fall with the present age, or do you want to stand and fall with the new Israel?

The present age has a lot going for it.  It’s already here, for instance.  Its powers are in place.  Its society is defined.  You can find your place in it, and while you may be having a rough go of it, at least you’re alive.  At least you’re not being tortured.  At least you can deal with it.  And being an ally of the present age asks very little of you – in fact, all you need to do is absolutely nothing.

What does the new Israel have to offer?  It has no power.  Its members are the dirtiest, stupidest, sinningest, rag-tag dregs of society you can imagine.  No guarantees of even the basics of food and shelter.  The only, single, solitary thing they have going for them is Jesus and all the promises of God he claims to represent.  If you want to join up, you have to repent of your sins, embrace a new life of faithfulness, and follow Jesus even if that means your imprisonment or death.

Who on earth would make a decision to stand against the powers that be to embrace life with these other people?

The people who have faith – that’s who.  The people who believe.  The people who trust.  And, perhaps in some cases, that trust is facilitated by having lost everything this world had to give them.  Because if you believe Jesus then you believe the judgement is coming, and the world and its powers will find themselves on the business end of God’s great renovation on the road to a new, better world.  You can ditch Jesus, now, and remain separate from him when God’s wrath arrives, or you can embrace Jesus, now, and be found as one of his faithful servants on that day.

But this decision only has meaning if God is going to make good on His promises to Israel and Jesus is who he says he is.  At this point in the story, the disciples have no way of knowing that for sure.  They have signs, yes, but so much of what they see around them and what they are about to experience will challenge these claims of Jesus.

In the midst of such fires, they have to trust.

Consider This

  1. In what ways have you been challenged to give up the faith?  In what spheres of life is it difficult to be faithful and assimilation would be much more attractive?
  2. A lot of our journey continues to be based on trust.  Is our trust blind?  What are some of the reasons you find God trustworthy?

Sunday Meditations: Habitual Sins

I was reminded recently of a talk about habitual sins I gave at a men’s retreat last year, and it got me thinking about the subject, again.  At some level, I really never stop thinking about this subject, to be honest.  I don’t know if this will be helpful to the Internet, but I’ve been thinking about it and want to get down a few thoughts about dealing with these struggles.

First, we have to own up to the fact that it’s habitual.

We can call this whatever we want.  Some people don’t like to think of them as addictions.  Some don’t even like to think of them as compulsive behaviors.  I won’t press the case, but I will say that if there’s something that you’re doing that you desperately want to stop doing and have repeatedly failed to do so even in the face of consequences, then the line between “addiction” or “compulsive behavior” and whatever you think you’re dealing with is a very thin one, indeed.

I have probably had this conversation a dozen times with other guys:

OTHER GUY: “I really struggle with Issue X.  It’s not an addiction, but it’s a big struggle for me.”

ME: “So you could stop anytime just by wanting to, right?”

OTHER GUY: “Well, no.”

Ok, well, whatever you want to call that, you have to come to terms with the fact that you can’t stop, and any solution that relies on your ability to stop yourself will only work for the short term at best.

Perhaps you have even earnestly prayed for God to help you stop or to take it away from you.  Years, maybe?  Decades?  Maybe you’ve even offered desperate pleas like asking God to take away your free will in this area or throw the switch that would make you stop sinning.  But it isn’t stopping, is it?

This is where we get crushed, because we assume that every struggle with sin is just a matter of overcoming it with our Holy Spirit-infused willpower.  So, if we cannot, then we are actually terrible Christians, or perhaps not even Christians to begin with.  Praying and trying harder are the only tools in our tool belt, and if those fail us, even that becomes our fault and just compounds the shame of the whole thing.  Believe me, I know.

But let me let you in on a little secret.  I have never, ever met a Christian who did not have something like this.

It’s not always the same thing.  In fact, sometimes it can be kind of abstract.  In further fact, sometimes it’s even something that is relatively socially acceptable in the world and even in the Church.  There are a lot of gluttonous pastors out there, and congregations just think it’s funny, for example.

It may be a substance.  It may be a practice.  It may be something that only happens in your head or heart.  But all those people at church around you who you think would never relate to having a sin you can’t stop – all of them have one.  Usually, more than one.

Now, they don’t all react to that the same way.  For some people, it makes them very compassionate toward themselves and others.  For others, it has the exact opposite effect, making them relentless judges.  For many, it seems to have a sort of polarizing effect where everyone else is perceived to be basically righteous with a few understandable failings, but one’s self is seen to be the worst mass of depravity ever spawned.  And, honestly, a lot of our church experience sort of engineers that perception.

But I’m all over the place, here.  My point is this: if you ever want to stop, you must first come to accept the grim, difficult reality that you actually cannot stop no matter how much you want to, and your life is the proof.

It doesn’t make you not responsible.  These are your choices.  It doesn’t make it someone else’s fault or a product of your life circumstances.  Other things may aggravate the conditions that cause you to choose to sin, but ultimately it is your choice.  You could get a new job, new friends, a new spouse, a new whatever tomorrow, and you would still find yourself turning to this pattern because you can’t outrun you.

Second, there are reasons that this is a pattern for you beyond a “sinful nature” or whatever.

We are responsible for what we do and the choices we make.  However, there are events that have shaped us, many of which we could not control.

You may think you had an idyllic childhood, but every last one of us adopted ways of behaving and taking on interpretations of the world around us that helped us navigate and prosper in our environment.  This way of dealing with life didn’t stop in childhood; it’s just that’s where some of the most formative, well-entrenched things happen that become so much a fundamental part of our matrix that we can’t even see it as adults.

(NOTE: Whether you remember them or not, your parents also had issues.)

For instance, a large number of guys in my generation had fathers who were not home very much.  Their fathers may not have been abusive.  They may not have been enraged and unpredictable (although that’s not uncommon, either).  They were probably just doing the best they could to handle their obligations and deal with their pressures even with their own failings.  But, let’s say your dad was barely home or didn’t really spend time with you on a regular basis.

Well, kids are great observers and terrible interpreters.

To navigate this world, you might develop a rich imagination and internal thought life, which isn’t a bad thing, but it’s so you could keep yourself company.  You might decide that real life is something that holds very little for you.  You might think that people don’t want to spend time with you.  You might think that, unless you did something spectacular, you weren’t worth noticing.  You might think that you just weren’t unconditionally lovable.  You might even think there was something actually wrong with you, fundamentally, that made people stay away.

If these things or something like them begin to worm their way into the way you think about yourself and the world, can you see the kinds of holes this creates?  Can you imagine, as you got older, what sorts of things you might do in response to this?  Can you imagine what sorts of people you would draw into your life and why?

And this is just one example of something someone might think because of one circumstance.  There are almost limitless variables in someone’s childhood and adolescence that begin to lodge various faulty interpretations deeply into our conceptual grid.  They go deep, we don’t even have conscious awareness of them as we get older, but they are there and, out of a sheer need for survival, they push us toward certain behaviors and steer us away from others.

There are reasons you have chosen your habitual sin, and you probably have no idea what they are.  But I can tell you that those reasons are there, they most likely were not things you chose but were sort of thrust upon you, and they helped you get through your world in some way, just as they are trying to “help” you get through your world, now, but they are actually destructive.

Like, I wish I could tell my body that food was plentiful and it really did not need to store up fat reserves to the extent that it does, but that fat storage is “helping” me survive, and when my choices are in line with keeping the fat storage mechanism up and running at full gait, it makes it a destructive force.

This is a reason why someone struggling with habitual sins needs to have compassion on themselves.  There is a constellation of false beliefs, possibly even trauma, about yourself, the world, your relationships, and God, that makes your behaviors not just attractive, but seemingly necessary.  You feel them in your core.  And you did not have any control over how this constellation got there.

But you are responsible for what you do, and you cannot stay here.  God does not want you to stay here.  You can’t throw up your hands like so many do and say, “This is just how I am.  I have to live with it and so does everyone else.”  It isn’t, you don’t, and they shouldn’t.

I put it to you that the reason God does not supernaturally take away your behavior is because that behavior is the tip of an iceberg of unhealthy spiritual junk you need to get rid of to heal and move forward, and if God took away that behavior, you’d never deal with what was lurking under it, and something even worse would take its place.  Or maybe it wouldn’t, and you’d think you were “sanctified” while all this gunk was still rolling around in your heart just because it didn’t manifest itself in a highly visible bad behavior.

Third, at the very least, start by getting someone else in this with you.

The very bad news I have for you is that you absolutely cannot stop your habitual behavior by yourself.  Read all the books you want.  Have a consistent Quiet Time.  Journal.  Meditate.  Whatever.  Those are all good things, you should do them, they will not enable you to stop.

Probably the best thing you could possibly do is find a group of people who have your struggle who are trying to work through it together.  Another great idea is to find a therapist or counselor who can ask you questions about your past and help you ferret out these core issues that have shaped you into the person you are, today.

But you might not be there.  Those may sound like the kinds of things addicts do, and you’re not comfortable with that right now.  That’s fine.

But at the very least, think about someone you can share your struggle with who will meet you with compassion, love, acceptance, and the caring impetus to help you move forward.  You don’t need someone who will just condone your behavior, but you don’t need a cop, either.

Because if you can share your story with someone, and what you get back is not condemnation, or shame, or lengthy explanations about why your behavior is a sin – but compassion, understanding, forgiveness, love, and a desire to help you out of it – those are all things God has for you.  You are experiencing Him through that other person, and that is what you want, because that is what it’s going to take to start untying those dark knots that live under your surface.