The Good Samaritan may be the most famous of all the parables that Jesus told. It certainly ranks in the top two or three. Sometimes familiarity like that breeds indifference. We have heard something so much that we think we have gotten all we can out of it. Yet, no matter how familiar I am with what the Bible teaches, I constantly find myself being surprised, challenged, and inspired by new insights. That certainly happened to me as a prepared to preach this message at Oviedo City Church recently. I hope you find something new as well and that it strengthens your relationship with Jesus.
Why Is There Suffering?
If you have taken a breath in life you have at some point wondered why bad things happen. Maybe it was “Why did that earthquake, fire, car crash, or disease, happen to those people?” Chances are it was far more personal, Why did that happen to me? It’s possible, even likely, that you cried out to God, or some version of God in your head, wondering why you, and why didn’t God do something about it.
The question of why there is suffering is all the more perplexing when we believe in a powerful and loving God who seemingly didn’t do anything to protect us from it. Countless people have attempted answers to that question. Countless sermons have been preached, blogs written, and books published in attempts to answer the Why? question. Generally, I find that they fall into a couple of categories. Many of them are far too academic and sterile making one wonder if the author has actually ever experienced suffering or knows anyone who has. On the other hand, many of them offer insipid platitudes that quickly brush past the reality of the suffering and give the equivalent of a piece of straw to a drowning man or woman. It is rare to find someone who both understands and recognizes the pain of suffering and provides real answers that have intellectual depth and promise, while at the same time acknowledging that we don’t and won’t have all the answers.
Sharon Dirckx (pronounced Dear-Icks) has provided just such a work and it is the finest work on the subject of suffering I have come across in many years, maybe ever. It combines stories of real people, the suffering they have endured as well as the answers they have found, with the intellectual rigor of someone who spent years doing research as a neurobiologist. More than that, Dircxk shares her own family’s struggles with her husband’s chronic, sometimes debilitating illness. It makes for a very real, sometimes emotionally raw book, that has answers that actually make a difference.
The stories in this book had my eyes welling up with emotion at the same time they had my heart swelling up with inspiration. They made the question of suffering very real, thus avoiding the cold, clinical approach of some theologians. The theological rigor, biblical comprehension, and logical thinking that come on the heels of each of the stories had my mind racing with excitement as I found answers that lay a solid foundation on which to stand. The end result is confidence that God deeply cares about people and their circumstances and that suffering is not the end of the story.
This is a book I did not want to put down and only did so when I had to change planes and eventually arrived at my destination. On one level it reads quickly. On another, you will want to ponder and absorb the arguments she makes in answering the Why? question. In that way it is a wonderfully helpful book if you are in the midst of suffering, have come through it and wondering why, or just want to be prepared and understand God more fully. It is also a book that people of faith, as well as skeptics, will find engaging and helpful.
It is available on Amazon in both paperback and Kindle versions.
- In full disclosure, I have met Sharon Dirckx and attended a number of her lectures as well as had conversations on a number of topics. All that has only served to add to my respect for her writing and for her as a person and follower of Jesus.
I Have Good News, Bad News, and Good News.
We have all heard it before, I have good news and bad news. Which do you want first? Most often I think people say, give me the bad news first, to get it over with and hopefully end on a high note with the good news. The Gospel, the basic message preached by Jesus is Good News. That is what the word Gospel actually means. But there is some bad news that comes first. So it is a typical bad news/good news sequence. It starts out by telling people they are sinners and deserve eternal punishment and then moves to the offer of salvation made possible because of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
But what if that was not the whole story? What if there was some good news before the bad news? I think that would be a somewhat important part of the message. The bad news/good news sequence starts with the human rebellion against God as told in the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis Chapter 3. The rest of the Bible is the lead-up to the Good News of Jesus. But the Bible doesn’t start with Genesis Chapter 3. It should come as no real surprise that there are two prior chapters. Those two chapters contain the vital first good news part of the story.
In those two chapters, the word good appears 11 times. Nine of those times it describes aspects of the creation God has made. When He creates human beings, He actually looks at his handiwork and says, “it is very good”. The beginning of creation is a wonderful, beautiful, very good beginning to the universe. Human beings are made in the image of God. They are made with dignity and purpose. They commune with God and enjoy freedom and bliss like we have not experienced since, and God says, that is very good.
Of course, in chapter three, it all goes pear-shaped, and the world suffers from the rebellion that human beings carry out against the commands of God. The repercussions of that rebellion included a broken relationship between human beings and God as well as broken relationships between people. Adam and Even hide from one another and from God because of their guilt and shame. It has been the way of relationships ever since. That is the bad news. We sinned, and we continue to do so. We were then tossed out of paradise and have been suffering in a broken world ever since.
Lots of preaching starts with chapter three and how messed up we are. In recent years I have noticed that this part of the message, starting with the bad news, is falling on increasingly deaf ears. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. I mean you can only stand being told how messed up you are for so long before you just don’t want to hear it anymore. It should also not surprising that it is falling on deaf ears, because that is not where the story starts. It doesn’t start with Bad News. It starts with Good News. It starts with an affirmation that God made you for something wonderful. He made you in His image. He made you with purpose. He made you to be in a relationship with Him out of no other motivation than a love for you as the pinnacle of all He created.
All of our religious expressions, all of our spiritual seeking, are rooted in the subconscious desire to regain what we lost. Romans chapter 1 tells us that we all have a built-in sense that God is there and even all creation speaks to that. C.S Lewis put it this way, “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.” We were made for another world. It was a world that our ancestors lived in for a time and we long for the goodness of it.
The Good News is you were created by God with dignity and purpose and to be in relationship with Him.
The Bad News is we have messed up our lives and our relationship with God and our relationships with one another.
The Good News is, Jesus came into the world to take on himself the punishment we deserve. He experienced isolation and abandonment on the cross so that anyone who puts their faith in Him can have a restored relationship with God, not only in this life, but life eternal.
Do you want the Good News, the Bad News, or the Good News? If you take it in that order, you just may find you feel very differently about yourself, your brokeness, and the God who made you to be in a beautiful relationship with Him that is Very Good.
Paul, Athens, and Navigating Culture
Have you ever felt like you live in a culture that you don’t recognize any longer? The values you are faced with every day are nothing like what you grew up with. The practices that people carry out in their lives each day are at times shocking to you. How do you respond as a follower of Christ when the culture seems to be so far removed from what you think God desires for you to flourish? Have you found yourself feeling out of touch with what is going on in the world and needing to figure out how to fit in?
Throughout history, followers of Christ have generally taken one of two routes when dealing with a culture that did not embrace biblical values. One route, taken by large numbers of historic denominations, is to embrace the cultural change and fill your sails with the prevailing cultural winds. That typically results in the loss of the Gospel and the loss of the power of what God does through the Gospel. The other route, one more common among conservative and evangelical churches, is to loudly denounce the sins of the culture and withdraw into a Christian ghetto in order to remain untainted by the culture all the while fighting the culture through political means or social media posts.
Here is the question. Is there a third way? Is there a way that avoids giving in and becoming like the culture AND avoids withdrawing while lobbing theological barbs and the culture? I think the answer is a resounding yes and we find the biblical example of this in Acts 17. In that chapter, Paul finds himself in Athens, a city of countless temples and altars to every imaginable God. It was a city rampant with all the sin a city could offer. When Paul visited there, he spent several days just walking around the city and getting a handle on its culture and values. Finally, only after digging into the research, does Paul begin to speak in the public square, the Areopagus.
What is striking about Paul’s response at this point is what he doesn’t do and say as much as what he does. One would reasonably expect that a man so deeply committed to Jesus and opposed to paganism and idolatry as Paul, one who comes out of the legalism of being a Pharisee, would have leveled both barrels at the Athenians. Like some contemporary, angry street preachers today who denounce the sin they see at every turn, it would not be surprising to hear Paul cry out, “You filthy, idol-worshipping pagans, you are all going to fry in Hell”. I have heard a few of those kinds of preachers in my day and have certainly seen more than enough of them posting on social media. Paul certainly has the kind of reputation that most people would probably expect just that from him. But it is a reputation that is not deserved.
Paul shocks the world when he begins, not with denunciations, but with compliments for the Athenians. That is shocking in itself. But it is the nature of his compliments that is really eye-opening. He compliments the Athenians for their idolatry. In Acts 17:22,23 we are told this, “So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship”. Instead of ripping into their false religious ideas, Paul actually makes a connection with them. He recognizes that the Athenians care deeply about spiritual things. They want to make sure they are honoring the gods. They want to cover all the spiritual bases to the point that they have altars and temples to every god they have ever heard of, and even an altar dedicated to The Unknown God. After all, what if some god shows up one day and asks to see their temple and the Athenians don’t have one? They ask the name of the god and declare, “So that is your name! We wanted to give you an altar but had no name to attach to it. Here it is right over here. We will have the stonemason add your name forthwith.” They are clearly a deeply spiritual people.
Paul is also deeply spiritual and he uses that commonality to his advantage. It is that altar to the Unknown God, that Paul uses as the jumping-off point to help the Athenians know who God really is. In doing so, he begins where they are and with what they can all agree on together. He quotes some of their own poets and philosophers that speak of a creator and uses that to point them in the direction of the God of the Bible who is the creator of all. From there he points them to Jesus, the resurrection, and the Gospel. Paul’s goal in all of this is not to denounce what the Athenians believe but rather to show the truth that can be found in what they already believe in order to lead them to a more complete truth that leads to faith in Jesus.
Paul could have easily denounced the Athenians, their ideas, and lives and withdrawn into his Christian bubble, or he could have acquiesced and gone along with them just to keep the peace. Paul chose the third way, the way of engagement and dialogue. He researched the culture. He found points of common understanding and used that connection to point ultimately to Jesus. That was his goal, point people to Jesus. He chose a more difficult way. It is easy to withdraw and denounce. It is easy to go with the cultural flow. It is harder to show a better way.
Paul wanted to show the Athenians that Jesus was the answer to all their hopes and dreams. His goal was always for people to find life in Jesus. In Acts 26, Paul is making his case before a Roman official named Festus. Paul is awaiting being sent to Rome to stand trial before Caesar and is telling Festus and a Jewish official named Agrippa, about Jesus. “And Agrippa said to Paul, “In a short time would you persuade me to be a Christian?” And Paul said, “Whether short or long, I would to God that not only you but also all who hear me this day might become such as I am—except for these chains.”.
Paul’s deepest desire is for people to know Jesus. He didn’t let the idolatry of the culture force him into a cultural battle. He didn’t let the lifestyles of the Athenians turn him against them. He didn’t withdraw from difficult conversations and disagreements. What he did do was show them respect. It is what Peter says in 1 Peter 3:15 that when we make a case for our faith, we are to always do it “with gentleness and respect”. That doesn’t mean doing it weakly. Paul was strong and courageous as he stood in the heart of academic learning of his day. Athens was the Oxford or Cambridge or Harvard of the ancient world. It took courage and grace to stand there and make your case.
How do you navigate the ever-shifting cultural landscape around you? Paul shows us how.
- Make sure you know what it is you believe and why. Being a follower of Jesus means being a student of the things of God, a life-long student.
- Make sure you know what it is that others believe. Paul understood the belief systems of the Epicureans and Stoics of Athens. He didn’t argue against a caricature of those beliefs that would have been easily dismissed by the philosophers. They knew that he knew what they believed.
- Find common ground to work from that leads to Jesus. Far too often followers of Jesus only point out where the differences are with others and never show the key points of agreement that allow for a true dialogue.
- Don’t freak out over practices and beliefs that defy the Gospel. Paul was surrounded by stuff in Athens that was clearly wrong and in some cases vile. He didn’t let that turn him away. Rather, he confidently lived the life that he knew Jesus wanted him to live, in hopes that it would be a light to others.
- Always show respect no matter how disagreeable and argumentative people become. Yelling louder and having the more witty retort, is not what brings people to Jesus.
Wanting Christianity Without Christ
When we live in our own cultural setting, with little real exposure to other cultures, it is easy to miss how we got to where we are. When we live in our own microcosm of time and ignore the centuries it took to get to this moment, it is inevitable that we will have blinders on. We will fail to understand and appreciate the foundational ideas and events that our current values are built upon. In the western cultural world of Europe, North America, and Australia, among others, there is an existing set of cultural values that want certain trappings of Christianity, but without the Christ who is at the heart of Christianity. They are values that find their roots in the biblical teachings of Jesus.
We want kindness, acceptance, forgiveness, love, compassion, and respect for others. These things have become ingrained in our culture to the point that most people simply take at face value that it has always been so and always will be so. The problem is, that most people don’t realize those values are the natural by-products of a culture shaped by and infused with, the teachings of Jesus, over many centuries. They are not things that are naturally found in the human psyche and are not typically found in cultures outside those impacted by Christianity. Values like kindness, care for the poor, compassion, and respect for others, are the flowers of the teachings of Jesus. They have bloomed and blossomed because of their connection to Jesus. Sadly, in today’s cultural climate, they are like cut flowers in a vase. They look lovely in the vase on the table and smell wonderful. But they have been severed from their roots, in this case, Jesus, and because they are no longer rooted, they will eventually wither and die, no matter how much plant preservative we add to the vase. And you can begin to see the withering when you look at the vitriol that has become part and parcel of our current disagreements in society.
This idea that our western values are actually based on biblical values has been brilliantly demonstrated by author Tom Holland, no not Spider-Man Tom Holland. This Tom Holland is a graduate of Cambridge University and author of the landmark book Dominion. In that massive 640-page book, Holland details how the values that we take for granted in the west as enlightened and desirable, are historically, uniquely, Christian values. Don’t get the idea that Holland is some on-fire Christian conservative. He is actually something of a religious skeptic when it comes to God. But he is enough of a historian to recognize that so much of what western culture values, comes right out of a Counter-cultural, biblical Christianity.
For instance, contrary to current perceptions of the past, the rights of women were non-existent in ancient Rome. Until the teachings of Jesus took hold, women were little more than property who had no say in the direction of their own lives. Their husbands could treat them with contempt and abuse and that was considered normal. They could be tossed aside on the whim of the husband. The teaching of the New Testament actually leveled the playing field, even if Christians have not been great at following that teaching. Care for the sick, unless they were extremely wealthy, was non-existent, until followers of Jesus began to care for them. People with power could force those without, to have sex and there was no #METOO movement to say otherwise. Why? Because it was a normal, cultural value for the powerful to force sex from the weak. Respect for all people of every socio-economic class was considered outrageous until Christians taught a message of a multi-ethnic, multi-generational, multi-racial family, all united by a common faith in Jesus. Even the basic idea that we are all to be treated with respect and dignity only came to be a cultural value because of the biblical teaching that all people are made in God’s image. In ancient Rome and most of the world, power was the prime value and people without it were considered expendable and useable. Any objective look at history will show that where we are today in terms of our values of human dignity, care for the downtrodden, compassion for the poor, respect for others, and so much more, all find their roots in the life and teachings of Jesus.
If you are a religious skeptic and reading this, it would be worth your while to ask, why do I hold the values I do? Where do they come from? Holland’s book may be a bit much to dive into. Another option would be Glen Scrivener’s book, The Air We Breath, How We All Came To Beleive In Freedom, Kindness, Progress, and Equality, is a must-read. It makes a very strong case that our current western values are uniquely the values of Jesus.
Unfortunately, we are seeing the unraveling of those values and teachings before our very eyes. The more we hear secular voices cry out for tolerance and acceptance, without being connected to the author of those teachings, the less tolerant and accepting we actually become. When there is no foundation to the message, no spiritual or intellectual weight to back up those values, the method of trying to achieve them is to yell louder, become more shrill, and block out anyone who disagrees. Why? Because deep down inside there is a gnawing fear that we don’t have good reasons for our values. We can’t make a defense for them. So we emotionally react and those emotional reactions come from the baser portions of our personality, the very things Jesus taught against and that all other values are ultimately built upon. The fact is, without being rooted in Jesus, we humans are ultimately incapable of living out the values of love, compassion, kindness, and sacrifice for others, that He taught. Oh to be sure, we can have short bursts of those things. But we can’t sustain them.
The popular culture wants Christians to tone it down, to become more blended into the rest of the culture, to privatize their faith. What we actually need is for Christians to double down on being more Christian not less. You see, as the culture has lost its Christian roots, sadly, so have many Christians. The more secular society becomes, the more likely it is for many Christians to also become cut off from their roots that are found in the person and teachings of Jesus. Being cut off from those roots leads to the kind of insipid Christianity we have in our culture. Or worse, it leads to Christians who are arrogant and self-righteous while they try to bolster a faith that no longer resembles Jesus, through the exercise of political power. The answer to both the insipid and power-hungry expression of Christianity is to become more like Jesus, not less.
Becoming more like Jesus means following the radical teaching that he laid out, and not just a little bit. Culture wants us to be tolerant of our neighbors. (If you want to read why I think tolerance is not an option read this post, Why I Refuse to Be Tolerant) Jesus doesn’t want tolerance. He wants us to love our neighbors and not only them but our enemies as well. Culture wants us to make a small donation to some charitable cause. Jesus wants us to live sacrificially and give extravagantly as He did. Culture wants us to respect people of other races and religions. Jesus wants us to throw open the doors of our own homes and invite them in, showing radical, biblical hospitality and inviting them to be our brothers and sisters.
Why does He want us to be so different? So that people will be drawn to Him. The greatest good we can do for anyone is to live in such a way that they come to know the deep love of Jesus and put their lives in His hands. They will not experience that if followers of Christ are not kind, loving, and respectful in their relationships with people who are not followers of Jesus. In other words, if we are not living an even more radical Jesus-like lifestyle then people are not going to see the real Jesus and will ultimately end up with Christianity without Christ. They will have a cut-flower religion that looks good for a time but will eventually wither and decay.
The Sanity of Belief: Why Faith Makes Sense
By Simon Edwards
Lately, I have been spending a vast amount of time on the subject of apologetics. If you don’t know what apologetics is, don’t feel bad. It’s one of those almost insider words that theology nerds throw around. However, it is a terribly important subject. It comes from the Greek word, Apologia, which simply means to make a case for or give a defense. Apologetics is looking at how one can make a case for the validity of Christianity. In a sense, that is what The Provocative Christian site is all about.
As part of my studies in apologetics, I had the privilege recently of attending a conference at The Oxford Center for Christian Apologetics on the campus of Merton College at Oxford University. Simon Edwards, the author of The Sanity of Belief, was one of the presenters. He was as engaging in person as he is in print.
This is an easily accessible read on a topic of vital importance that often gets dealt with by way of a load of philosophical language that leaves people cold and unconvinced. This book is winsome, insightful, compelling, and uplifting. As a result, I decided that a little blurb about the book would be a good idea so more people would pick it up and read it.
The title fits the content. Edwards makes a case for a Christian faith that makes sense, that doesn’t require you to check your brain at the door. He does so by first looking at six topics under the heading, Things That Matter. These are issues that are important to most people; life’s meaning, your value, goodness, truth, love, and suffering. But it is not just about making the case that Christianity makes sense. He also makes the powerfully strong case that Christianity makes a difference, provides answers, and is extremely relevant. Consider this quote from chapter 2 on value;
If you have ever been told that you are a failure or told yourself that you are, it is not true. It’s a lie. Because failure is an event, it is not a person. To equate failing with being a failure is to make the mistake of conflating what you do with who you are. But they are not the same thing. 1
The whole question of self-worth, finding your value in life, is one that plagues people in our current culture.
Edwards shows what the Bible has to say about how valuable you are, not because of what you do but because God has made you with dignity, in His image, and no matter what successes or failures you have in life, they do not change the fact of how valuable you are to God. He contrasts that with current ways we unsuccessfully try to make ourselves feel valuable. The first six chapters are loaded with points like this that will make you reconsider how you are approaching life and give you tools for doing so with greater confidence and answers that make sense.
The second half of the book, under the heading Weighing Up the Evidence, does just that. First, Edwards deals with what a thinking faith looks like and then weighs the evidence from the world around us, the evidence within ourselves, and the evidence from history. Of particular importance is the question of truth and how we can know it. That chapter alone is worth the price of the book and the discussions it should lead to, especially in a world in which the whole idea of truth is up for grabs.
Edwards packs all of this into just over 200 pages that move quickly. You never get bogged down and in fact, if you are like me, will find yourself excited by what you are reading and want more.
This is a fantastic book if you are exploring faith, wondering what to believe or if you are already a Christian but sense the need for a more intellectually robust faith.
The book is available in paperback and on Kindle. You can go there by clicking on the image below.
1 Edwards, Simon. The Sanity of Belief (p. 41). SPCK. Kindle Edition.
Rightful Moral Outrage or Moral Smugness?
I am working my way through a book titled Exclusion and Embrace by Yale theologian, Miroslav Volf. It is an incredibly rich and dense book written by a Croatian Christian who has had to wrestle with forgiveness of people guilty of numerous war crimes and acts of genocide against his people, following the breakup of Yugoslavia and the Balkan wars. There is a line in the book that I keep coming back to, “Rightful moral outrage has mutated into self-deceiving moral smugness”.
It causes me to immediately think of the moral outrage in the meta-verse of social media following the Will Smith slapping of Chris Rock at the Academy Awards. It is just one example of how the world so quickly becomes morally smug. The accusing, crooked finger pointing that was directed at Will Smith is typical of what happens every day. Someone does something morally repugnant and individually and collectively the fingers point, the tongues wag, and the heads shake in disgust. Yes, what was done is morally unjustifiable and needs to be identified as such. But is that really our motivation? Are we really so concerned with establishing a morally just society in those moments? Or are we more concerned with making sure none of the finger pointing, tongue wagging, and head shaking expressions of disgust are aimed in our direction? I am convinced that our moral outrage turned smugness is a result of trying to hide our own guilt and deflect attention from us. It is a society wide form of gaslighting.
Why do we do it? Why do we point to others in such times of failure? It is because we have forgotten what grace is. We have forgotten that we are all sinners in need of grace. In our efforts to say that all morality is relative and nobody can tell us what is right and wrong, we all still carry the deep seated sense that we are guilty. The rise of shame in our culture is epidemic. Saying there is no objective morality has not helped remove that shame. In fact it has made it worse because we have no way of dealing with our guilt even if we are only violating our own personal morality. So we resort to pointing the finger at others in hopes that no one will notice our sin while we try to live in denial of it ourselves.
Enter, the Cross, and Good Friday. Jesus went to the Cross to provide the cure for our guilt and shame. He died to pay the price, take the hit, settle our cosmic account. He died to make us free from guilt and shame. But there is a catch. In order to be free from it, you need to first own it. You need to admit you have it and that you are totally incapable of fixing it. Only by accepting the gift of grace and forgiveness can you be free of guilt and shame. When that happens, it is no longer necessary to point morally smug fingers at others. You can point out moral wrongs, but you do so, not to make yourself feel better, but to lead someone to the Cross and grace and forgiveness.
It is impossible to stand at the foot of the Cross and think, “I am glad he didn’t need to hang there for me”. He did hang there for you and for me, and for those people that we think are so far gone that we must cancel them. They are no more gone than you or I. When you experience the grace of God available through the Cross, and you really own your sin that made the Cross necessary, it becomes very difficult to withhold grace from someone else. In fact, without the Cross, without experiencing the grace of God, it is nigh unto impossible to give grace to someone else. You cannot give what do not have.
When I find myself being morally smug, it is time to go back and kneel at the foot of the Cross and weep over my immorality, so that I can rise up and stand in God’s presence, and rejoice in my forgiveness. Then I am equipped and empowered to give grace to others as it has been given to me.
The Flip Side of Justice
Want to make people uncomfortable? Just bring up the topic of justice in American culture today. There will be immediate reactions of every conceivable type. Some will cry out about the level of injustice with claims that America has never been concerned about justice and that the entire enterprise is rotten to the core. Others will shout about this being the greatest country in the world and a near approximation of God’s heaven on earth. And of course there is everything in between. It is a debate that seems to be tearing at the very fabric of social interaction and connectedness and threatens to push us into barbaric tribalism over disagreements that are often ill defined and misunderstood.
The church of Jesus, both at large and on the local church level, is not immune to the division. A recent article by Michael Graham, The Six Way Fracturing of Evangelicalism, (1) brilliantly describes the breadth of ideologies that are overtaking churches and the lack of charity in dealing with the disagreements. While we might assume the fracturing is over theological issues, at the core it is really over how we approach social and political issues and wrap them in theological garb.
What has become apparent in the debates about justice is that first and foremost, Christians are often not starting with what the Bible has to say about Justice, at least not a fully orbed view of what the Bible says. Rather, both on the political right and left, many are starting with unexamined world views they have long held, and making the assumption that they have the Bible and Jesus on their side. Any pushback on those views is automatically assumed to be an attack on what the Bible and Christianity teaches. That is a dangerous assumption.
Something that adds to the discord is that the topic of justice has rarely been dealt with in a comprehensive way by preachers and teachers within Christianity. One result of this lack of teaching is that older Christians have functioned under a malnourished understanding of justice and not engaged the issues of the world from a wholistic biblical framework. Younger Christians on the other hand have been confronted with the various injustices in the world and the churches failure to engage. Often times they end up latching on to secular approaches to justice that distort the biblical approach and serve to cause more division.
One Christian author has clearly explained the current situation.
In the Bible, Christians have an ancient, rich, strong, comprehensive, complex, and attractive understanding of justice. Biblical justice differs in significant ways from all the secular alternatives, without ignoring the concerns of any of them. Yet Christians know little about biblical justice, despite its prominence in the Scriptures. This ignorance is having two effects. First, large swaths of the church still do not see ‘doing justice’ as part of their calling as individual believers. Second, many younger Christians, recognizing this failure of the church and wanting to rectify things, are taking up one or another of the secular approaches to justice, which introduces distortions into their practice and lives. (2)
The Bible Is Loaded with Teaching About Justice.
Even a cursory glance at the Bible is going to reveal that it speaks about justice a bunch. The words Just and Justice appear more than 500 times in English translations of the Greek and Hebrew. That doesn’t even take into account that Righteousness is often synonymous with Justice in the Bible and it shows up more than 800 times in its various forms. At the heart of it all is the fact that an attribute or characteristic of God’s very nature is that He is just. He is a God of justice because at the core He is a just God. That in itself should move Christians to dig into the question, what is biblical justice and not take simple, surface answers as the end of the matter.
When we do the hard digging we find that biblical justice of far more robust, rich, and nuanced than our sound bite arguments can accommodate. Often times when we engage complex topics we recognize that there are two sides to the coin. It is a way of saying there is another aspect that needs to be considered and it is integral to the whole piece. When it comes to understanding Biblical Justice it gets a bit more complicated because there are actually two coins in the treasury of Biblical Justice and each of the two coins has a flip side to it. Our tendency as people is to latch on to one side of one coin and miss the other three sides. At best we might see both coins but still only see one side of each. One of those coins is what I call the punishment/protection coin. The other is the individual/communal coin.
The Punishment/Protection Coin
That the Bible speaks of punishment for wrongdoers as an aspect of justice is not news. If anything it is the most often examined side of the justice coins, at least among American Evangelicals. We understand that sin is wrongdoing against God and others, and justice requires that it be dealt with. Preachers have rightly declared for centuries that human beings are sinners deserving punishment from a holy God, but in His mercy, the Father sent the Son into the world to take that punishment for those who would trust in Christ.
What we often miss is that justice is also about protecting those who are wronged, Amos chapter 5 is but one example. In that chapter the prophet chastises the people of Israel because they are doing grave injustice by having rulings in their court system that favor the rich, who have given them bribes, and ruling against the poor, the widow, and the orphan who have no resources to spare in bribing judges. This is one example of injustice and Amos is calling for people to seek justice, which would include protecting those who are most vulnerable in society.
Throughout the scriptures we see four classes of people who we are to protect and provide for if we are to see justice. Zechariah chapter 7 makes this clear and is one of many times this shows up.
Administer true justice, show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the immigrant or the poor. Zechariah 7:10–11 (ESV)
True justice requires assuring that the widow, the fatherless, the immigrant, and the poor, are shown mercy and compassion and are not oppressed. We may differ as to the remedies for showing justice to those who are vulnerable, but there should never be any doubt among followers of Jesus that justice in God’s eyes is BOTH punishment for the wrongdoer and protection and provision for the one who is wronged. Most often those wronged are those among us without the resources to protect themselves, like the widow, the orphan, the immigrant, and the poor.
There is a long history favoring this side of the justice coin in American culture. One needs to simply look at any list of western genre movies and you are going to find the theme of justice as protection and provision for the oppressed. Think of movies like, The Magnificent Seven, Unforgiven, High Noon, Tombstone, High Plains Drifter, The Outlaw Josey Wales, even Blazing Saddles and The Three Amigos. They all had a theme of someone or a group of someones who are being oppressed by bad guys. We look at that and say to ourselves, “That’s not right”. Then the hero or heroes comes to town and make things right and we cheer. That is a full expression of justice. The bad guy is punished AND there is relief and vindication for the oppressed. Both are required for true, biblical justice to exist.
In law enforcement we see this same theme played out. On the side of many police cruisers you will see something along the lines of “To Protect and Serve”. Just who are the police protecting and serving? It is those who are potential victims of injustice. We don’t need to be reminded that the police are there to bring wrongdoers to justice. No police cruiser has “To Apprehend and Punish” on the side of the car. We don’t need to be reminded of that side of the justice coin. But we do need to be reminded that justice is also about protecting and serving the vulnerable.
The Second Justice Coin – Individual and Corporate Responsibility
We can wrap our minds around the notion of justice being both punishment for the wrongdoer and protection and provision for the vulnerable. What gets really dicey is when we get to the next coin. This is the coin of individual AND corporate responsibility for justice. Again going back to Amos 5 we see this as part of God’s call for justice.
Amos 5:24 is one of the two or three key verses that were part of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s in America.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. Amos 5:24 (ESV)
The word justice in this verse is the translation of the Hebrew word Mishpat. Righteousness is the Hebrew word Tsadek. At first glance we might think that Amos is talking about two different things here, justice and righteousness. In fact they are the same thing. This is an example of Hebrew parallelism in poetry. It is using similar yet slightly different words to speak of the same thing. In this case, justice and righteousness are both to have a quality of water flowing. When we get to the Greek New Testament, there is one Greek word, dikaiosune, that is translated as BOTH justice and righteousness. Biblically speaking both justice and righteousness are closely connected.
But let justice (mishpat) roll down like waters,
and righteousness (tsadek) like an ever-flowing stream,
So what is the point of all this word study? Mishpat is one side of justice from a Hebrew perspective and Tsadek is another. Tsadek we can understand. It is the one to one relationship between people. I need to treat you justly and you need to treat me justly. We are each responsible for our actions and need to do right by one another. The more politically conservative you are, the more likely you are to understand and call for individual responsibility when it comes to justice issues.
However, the Bible also understands that there is a communal or corporate side to justice. Going back to the issue of bribery in the Hebrew court system of the city gate we see this corporate, or mishpat aspect. If we only thought of tsadek we would say, it is a corrupt judge. While that is true, mishpat would also be concerned about the fact that other people obviously knew about the bribery and at best turned a blind eye to it and at worse, received a cut from the corrupt judge. This is what is meant by systemic injustice. In this case, the community bears some responsibility for the injustice. Certainly not as much as the corrupt judge, but their hands are not clean either.
I find that this is where the serious pushback and arguing begins. We don’t want to share in the blame for something that we did not directly do. This is where our western French enlightenment individualism, clashes with a biblical understanding of the communal nature of life. But we are not without examples of times when we instinctively accept the communal aspect of guilt.
Parents seek to raise their children to live rightly and do the right thing. When children go off the rails in some way, parents can feel a certain amount of responsibility for what their children do and may even apologize on their behalf. Of course it works the other way around as well. Children can find themselves apologizing for their parents behavior. Why? The answer is simple. We understand that we are connected to our family and the actions of family members reflects on us in some way. Eastern and Middle Eastern cultures understand this. The Bible was given originally by God to a Middle Eastern people and if reflects how God values community.
Sins of Commission and Omission
As western individualist we tend to focus of what the reformers of the 16th century church referred to as sins of commission, those sins we committed. Whenever the question of communal or corporate responsibility comes up there is a quick reaction that says, “ I did not do that”. We think of sin as only being something we have done wrong.
But the Bible regularly points out sin that is the result of us NOT doing what is right. In fact, NOT doing what is right could be said to be the most serious of sins. When Jesus was asked by a religious leader, “What is the greatest commandment,?” he replied to “Love the Lord your God with all you heart, mind, soul, and strength and love your neighbor as yourself”. Loving God and neighbor calls for us to DO something that is loving. It is not just about not stealing from your neighbor or not slandering your neighbor. It is also a call to do things to care for, serve, minister to your neighbor. Failure to love your neighbor in those ways would be sins of omission.
As a follow-up to the question who is my neighbor, Jesus tells the story of Good Samaritan. Two religious Jews walk by a man who has been beaten and left for dead. A Samaritan stops and cares for the man and serves him. The point is clear. The Samaritan is the one who loved his neighbor. By failing to love their neighbor, and care for the beaten man, the religious leaders committed sins of omission. They didn’t beat up the man, but they also did not do anything to help him in his plight.
This notion of sins of omission is imbedded in the historic liturgy, or worship structure, of many churches. There is often a time of prayerful confession followed by an assurance of God’s pardon or forgiveness. That prayer is said corporately as an expression that we are all in this together.
Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent. For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us; that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name. Amen.
How often has that prayer been recited without considering how our failure to provide for and protect the vulnerable is actually a sin of omission?
But why should I be held responsible for what someone else has done?
One of the most difficult stories in the Bible is the story of Achan in Joshua 7. The Hebrew people had just conquered Jericho, a mighty fortress. The next town on the march was Ai. They thought it would be a pushover. They were defeated badly and cried out to God for an answer. The result was that Achan had stolen booty from the defeat of Jericho, in direct violation of what God had commanded so the whole nation was defeated in the battle at Ai. The short version of the story was that not only was Achan punished for this offense against God, but his whole family was well. To our modern, western ears this seems horrific and unjust. Yet, God clearly sees a connection between the guilt of Achan and his whole family being involved.
As hard as it may be to accept, Achan’s family were complicit in his sin due to their failure to call him to account. Theirs was a sin of omission. It was just like the people in Amos’ day who knew that widows and the poor were being denied justice in the city gate and did not come to the defense of the oppressed. That sin of omission was a failure to love their neighbor.
What we need to wrestle with as followers of Jesus is to what extent do we see corporate responsibility being taught in scripture. To what extent is mishpat to be experienced. We cannot deny that it needs to be part of the equation. The error of denying it exists, along with the error of blaming everything on systems and accepting no individual responsibility is equally wrong. That is why I use the illustration of two sides of the coin. The Bible holds both individual, (tsadek) and corporate, (mishpat) together as a wholistic approach to justice. To stress one over the other is to have what amounts to a counterfeit justice.
Asking the Why Question
My hope is that followers of Christ will wrestle with and come to grips with what the Bible says about justice and ask WHY does it say what it says, before trying to argue the “what” or “how” of dealing with injustice. Simon Sinek points out our propensity to only ask what someone has done or how they did it, without asking the important question of why. You cannot come to a biblical solution to the problem of injustice by getting stuck on what or how. If we do not know why God cares about justice we will never understand true, wholistic justice. Without that we will never have real justice in our society. We also need to understand that this is not a secondary issue. It is of primary concern. God cares deeply about justice. His very nature and character is to be a God of justice.
,Arguments over things like reparations, or affirmative action, or wealth redistribution, or securing the borders, are dealing with “what” questions. What should we do? Those are important questions. They rarely ever get to the how of things, other than to tax some people more or give some people more or just let everyone in, or no one in. Asking why we do something is crucial. Asking why something is the way it is may be even more crucial.
A great example of the need to start with why, is to look at the highly controversial statement, Black Lives Matter. Is there a more polarizing phrase today? The immediate response is to say things like, All Lives Matter, or Blue Lives Matter. Those are certainly true statements but they don’t get to the heart of the issue. Another reaction is to immediately dismiss the statement because the organization Black Lives Matter has roots in political and philosophical ideas that would be contrary to scripture. But what we really need to ask is why. Why would a 25 year old black male feel the need to say, Black Lives Matter. Is it possible that he says that because in his experience he has come to believe that his life really doesn’t matter to some people, or even most people?
Why do I as a 63 year old white male not feel the need to say white lives matter? The simple reason is because I have never been made to feel as if my life did not matter. I have never had to wrestle with a history that says people of my color only count as 3/5ths of a human being or that people of my color were not allowed to drink from certain water fountains or swim in certain public swimming pools. While those things are mostly things of the past, they are part of our collective, mishpat, history. The effects of which still linger.
I would not be one to say things are worse than ever when it comes to justice issues in our culture. I have been around long enough to know that in fact things have gotten way better, not worse. The short sighted view of history that sees only our contemporary situation and deems it worse than ever is possible only if we ignore history. We practically burned the country to the ground in 1968 in response to the Vietnam war and the assassinations of Senator Robert Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. What we saw in Portland or Minneapolis recently was played out in every major city in the country for an entire summer, if not longer, in 1968. We have made huge strides since then. We have had a person of color as president and currently as vice president. That was beyond imagination in 1968. Things have gotten much better but there is still much to do.
The only way to really move forward is to understand and adopt a biblical view of justice. It was just such a view that drove the Civil Rights Movement of the 60’s and needs to be what drives us today. The secular answers to questions of injustice will always fall short for the simple reason that they are not rooted in the character of God. We only care about justice because of the latent sense we have within us that justice matters because it is a character trait of God. We must be willing to adopt a biblical view of justice, even when it clashes with our politically left or right notions. And in fact a biblical view will conflict with both in different ways. Neither the political left or political right has all the answers and the correct foundation when it comes to justice. Only justice that is rooted in who God is and what God has done, will ever fully satisfy our desire and need for justice.
1 The Six Way Fracturing of American Evangelicalism. Michael Graham
Mere Orthodoxy Blog June 7 2021
2 A Biblical Critique of Secular Justice and Critical Theory, Tim Keller
Gospel in Life Quarterly. Special Edition 2020
For several years I have been hearing and reading lots of Christians, many of them leaders in churches, talk about the persecution that Christians are under in the United States and how it is going to get worse. In the last few days I have read and heard numerous doom and gloom scenarios about the future of persecution in the USA. Let me be clear from the outset, this drives me nuts. You would be hard pressed to find another country in the world where it is so easy to be a follower of Christ. I should know, I have been to more than 40 of them.
There are two main points I want to make. First, Christians in this country are NOT being persecuted. Second, if you are, PRAISE GOD! That’s wonderful!
As to the first point, it is without a doubt, that serious followers of Jesus face pushback, and opposition, and at times ridicule. There are often times when that ridicule is deserved, so I hardly would count that as persecution. Even still, the kind of pushback many Christians face in The United States does not rise anywhere even close to the level of any definition of persecution. If you want to see persecution, let me take you to some places I have been. Let’s go to China where pastors are regularly arrested and held in jail for undetermined amounts of time, while their churches get bulldozed, and their people arrested. Let me take you to Iran, where the church is growing faster than in just about any other country in the world, yet under one of the harshest regimes and life threatening persecutions. I could go on and on. You see, by comparison, it is a cake walk following Jesus in the USA. Yet, ironically, this is one of just a handful of countries in the world were the church is in decline.
Maybe it is not persecution that threatens the church so much as it is the fact that we have idolized personal comfort, physical safety, and financial security, above being loving witnesses to the glory of Jesus. How else do you explain that in a country where the constitution guarantees the freedom to worship, and practice our faith, and tell other people about Jesus, in a country with more Bibles than people, how is it in that country, the church is in decline? Yet in places with none of that and only facing hardship, the church flourishes and people are coming to faith in Jesus everyday?
The second point, to praise God of you are getting pushback and even persecution for your faith, simply comes from the words of Jesus…..
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” Matthew 5:10-12
Jesus told his first followers that they are blessed when their lives so reflect who Jesus is that people persecute them and slander them. Those first Christians took that to heart. When they were arrested and beaten for preaching Jesus, they didn’t whine and complain and take someone to court. They walked away, “rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name”. Acts 5:41.
You see, the life mission of a follower of Jesus doesn’t change because their environment makes it more difficult. It doesn’t matter who is in the White House, what executive orders they sign, who controls the Senate or the House of Representatives, or who gets nominated to the Supreme Court. The mission of the follower of Jesus remains to love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, to love your neighbor, even your enemy, as yourself, and to go and make disciples of all ethnicities. Maybe if we focused more on that Great Commandment and Great Commission, we would have less time to whine about it being a little harder to be a Christian than it used to be.
If you are getting some serious heat for following Jesus, before you start screaming about persecution, it would be a good idea to ask if you have been loving your neighbor and your enemy as Jesus commands. Maybe they revile you and say all sorts of slanderous things about you, not because you are living like Jesus, but because you are being a jerk. In that case, it’s not persecution, it’s probably closer to justice.
When May a Christian Defy the Government?
In light of recent events at our nation’s Capitol Building and the close association of Christian banners and symbols with that event, I began to think about the whole question of when Christians may or even should defy the governing authorities over them. The fact that yesterday was the day celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and that tomorrow is the Presidential Inauguration, makes it all the more relevant.
Anytime I am faced with questions like this, I find that the only real answer is to explore the scriptures, what we call the Old and New Testaments. Far too often when people argue for things they think are “the Christian” way to do something, there is little time spent actually studying what God has already said about the issue. When it comes to obedience to governing authorities, the story of Daniel in the Old Testament as well as Matthew 22:20-22, Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Peter 2:13-17 are essential to the conversation. (If you have not read and understood those, you are most likely off base when it comes to answering the questions surrounding civil disobedience and I encourage you to read and wrestle with them before diving into the conversation). As with any subject, especially one as complicated and emotionally charged as this one, it is essential to look at the full scope and context of what the Bible teaches.
The three passages from the New Testament make it clear that all governing authority that exists, does so because in God’s sovereignty, He has granted it to be so. Anytime we oppose that authority, we run the risk of opposing God. However, that does not mean that there are never times when a Christian may oppose those in authority. The story of Daniel, as well as the Apostles in Acts 4:19, gives us the guidance we need to understand the limits of obedience to authority and when disobedience is called for. When I speak of those in authority that can mean those in government, the workplace, or even the home.
What we get from studying the Scriptures is this; there are two times a follower of Jesus may and in fact should, disobey those in authority. The first is when they command you to do something God has forbidden. The second is when they forbid you to do something God has commanded. In the case of the Apostles, they were being forbidden to preach the name of Jesus, something they had been commanded to do by the Lord. That is why they said, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard” In the case of Daniel he was being commanded to do something that God had forbidden and to not do something God had commanded. He was commanded to pray only to King Darius, and forbidden to pray to God.
There are only two times a follower of Jesus may and in fact should disobey those in authority. The first is when they command you to do something God has forbidden. The second is when they forbid you to do something God has commanded
There are two words of caution and clarification here. The first is, you need to be sure that what you are being forbidden from doing or what you are being commanded to do, is actually in violation of God’s commands and not a violation of your preference or some cultural value. As an example, some Christians have run afoul of local ordinances that are designed to make life good for everyone in a neighborhood. They can be things like, how many parking spaces you need to have for every seat in your worship space or how many people are allowed in the building. These are established as safety measures for everyone. They are NOT forbidding you to gather to worship. You may have ordinances that prohibit the noise level that can he heard so as not to disturb neighbors. These are also not forbidding you from worshipping. They are forbidding you from annoying your neighbors. There are all sorts of local ordinances like these. I have seen Christians object that these things are infringing on their “right” to worship and they they must obey God rather than man. I believe that opposing the governing authorities in those instances is not justifiable from the Bible. In those cases, worship, which is commanded by God, is not being forbidden. What is being forbidden is an unsafe practice in the case of capacity, or an unloving practice, in the case of annoying your neighbors. You may need to add worship times to accommodate everyone to be safe, or turn down the volume of your sound system in order to love your neighbor better, but you are not being forbidden to worship.
The second caution is to realize that when you do have a legitimate, biblical reason, to oppose those in authority, you must be prepared to face the consequences. Just because you are right and biblical doesn’t mean you will be treated justly. Dr. King rightly opposed the segregation laws of the 50’s and 60’s because such laws were in violation of God’s teaching that we are all made in His image and they required us to NOT love our neighbor as ourselves. Yet, even though he was following biblical guidelines, he still ended up in a Birmingham jail. Even though he was following biblical guidelines, Daniel still ended up in the Lion’s Den. Even though they were following biblical guidelines, the Apostles were still beaten for their faith.
There is one thing to note about the Apostles. They did not moan and complain about being beaten. Rather, they actually rejoiced that they were counted worthy to suffer for the name of Jesus. We need a whole lot more of that kind of attitude and a lot less moaning and complaining about not being treated fairly by those in authority. We especially don’t need Christians suing the government everytime we find ourselves being put upon in some way and being angry and rebellious because of it.
There are legitimate times when disobeying those in authority is the right thing to do. Your boss may tell you to do something illegal or unethical. The government may enact a law that requires you to violate God’s commands. We need to be strong enough to do so when the time comes. But you better be absolutely certain that it is because you are being required to do something God has forbidden, or forbidden to do something God has required. It is my experience that those times are fewer and farther between than we usually imagine.
Have We Lost Our Way?
ON JANUARY 13, 2021 BY DAN LACICH
There is a line from The Hobbit where Bilbo Baggins is perplexed, and alone, and unsure of where to go, or what to do. In that moment he says, “I have lost my dwarves, my wizard, and my way”. The dwarves were his traveling companions on a mission to restore the dwarves’ homeland and he has become separated from them. The wizard was Gandalf, the wise one who called them together, but Gandalf had left with a promise to return. The way, was the direction to the kingdom that they were trying to restore. I see striking parallels in where the church is today.
Dare I say we have become separated from one another in ways we have not seen since the 16th century when the church, during the Reformation, exploded into countless, fractured pieces. We have lost our connection to Jesus, the all wise one who has called us together. We have lost the way to build the Kingdom of God that Jesus called us to. The recent storming of the Capitol is the stark and tragic evidence of how lost we have become.
I don’t intend to address the politics of it all. Jesus rarely talked politics and when he did it was about paying to Caesar what was his due in the form of taxes. Paul rarely talked politics and when he did it was all about submitting to the governing authorities, even when that governing authority was the Emperor Nero who would eventually have Paul beheaded, and use Christians as human Tiki Torches to light the streets of Rome. I am absolutely certain that Jesus would never have called for his followers to storm the Roman Senate with banners declaring “Jesus Saves”, like we saw last week in Washington D.C.
That kind of use of force and demonstration of human anger and power is not what followers of Christ are called to do and be. Some might object, “what about when Jesus cracked the whip in the Temple of Jerusalem and threw out the money changers who were robbing people?” Fine, let’s be about the task of getting our house in order in the church. That is what Jesus was doing. When it came to his relationship with the secular government it was always about submitting to that government, even if it was corrupt like that of Pontius Pilate that got Him crucified.
Christians in The United States of America need to understand that our task is NOT to usher in the Kingdom of God by controlling the government or through political power. Should we be involved and campaign and vote as part of our responsibility as citizens? Of course we should. But we must do that with the attitude and demeanor of Jesus. The Great Commandment was not, “Love your country with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and make sure to control your neighbor”. It was to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.” The hate that was demonstrated at the Capitol, and that has been demonstrated over the last decade or more, is not what Jesus has called followers of Christ to exhibit. Sadly it has been demonstrated from both the political right and left within the church at large.
The debates and arguments that I have seen Christians engage in over the last thirty years, have rarely been grounded in Scripture. In the last decade it has been even less so. There is the occasional verse yanked completely out of context, but rarely is there a deep dive into the heart of what Jesus calls us to, especially when that deep dive conflicts with our political, or economic, or social ideology. Arguments about justice are rarely based on what Biblical justice looks like. Arguments about corrupt government rarely address what the Bible says about living under such rule. Instead the debate turns to how to take power and control.
Why are we in this position? In part because we have believed the lie that this is a Christian nation and we are afraid we are losing that and are trying to take it back. When you are afraid you are losing something you can be led to do desperate things that are out of character. When your team loses it is all too common to blame the refs. They made bad calls. It is the other teams fault. They cheated. Rarely do we ever say, our team sucked and that is why we lost. Does this sound familiar?
America was never “A Christian Nation”. It was a nation founded on principles of The Enlightenment. That meant it was all about freedom, especially freedom of religion any religion, not just Christianity.
“But the founders of this nation were Christians.” So what? Yes, some of them were. Some of them were not. Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, which speaks of being “endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights,” was not a Christian. I mean after all, you can look at his personal Bible and see that he took a razor to countless passages he did not like. He cut out anything supernatural, any miracles, any mention of the resurrection of Jesus, and more. Sorry, not a Christian. “But the Declaration of Independence talks about God, the Creator.” Of course it does, a very nebulous God, somewhere out there, who created everything but has left it to run on it’s own. It is called Deism. Nowhere is there mention of Jesus or Christianity. They were actually rebelling against a Christian nation. King George III was not only King of England but head of the Church of England as Elizabeth II is today. Our country was built to avoid that entanglement of “official” religion. Why? Because so many of them fled England in order to have freedom of religion and wanted to make sure others had it too.
So where does this leave us? How do we find our dwarves, our wizard, and our way?
First, we need to remember that other followers of Jesus are not the enemy when they have a different opinion of things. The fracturing that is happening in the Body of Christ over political ideology must be breaking the heart of Jesus. Imagine being a parent and having your kids at one another’s throats over petty differences. It is far worse than that for Jesus.
Most of my formal theological education has been at institutions were I was not in the majority. In fact I was in a decided minority. For my bachelors in theology, I was the only non-Roman Catholic in the program in a Roman Catholic university. For my Masters of Divinity, I was one of two non-Episcopalians in an Episcopal seminary. Guess what happened. I learned to have dialogues with people I disagreed with and as a result I learned a ton more than if I had been in my own theological echo chamber. One of the main things I learned was how to love and respect people I disagreed with and who disagreed with me.
Jesus prayed that we would be one as he and the Father are one. What are you doing to make that prayer a reality? What are you doing that is inhibiting the fulfillment of that prayer?
Second, be more like Jesus, even when it hurts and goes against your political, social, or economic ideology. The whole point of being a disciple of Jesus is to become more like him. In order to do that you have to become a student of the life and teachings of Jesus found in the Bible. Then we have to submit to that teaching even when it runs against the grain of what we have previously thought and done. That requires humility not hubris.
Third, make God’s Kingdom, not an American Kingdom, the goal you are striving towards. Don’t get me wrong. I absolutely love America. I have been to more than 30 other countries around the world and there is no other place I would rather live, by far. But America is not the New Jerusalem come down from Heaven. Followers of Jesus are to be citizens of God’s Kingdom first and foremost. We are to be the best possible citizens we can be in this world, honoring those in authority and doing all we can to make their job easier. But we are more than that. We are to be pointing people to the love of Jesus more than anything, because He is Lord, not Caesar. If your political ideology is getting in the way of loving your neighbor as Jesus called you to, then I ask you, what needs to give, your political ideology, or the command of your Lord?
The bottom line is simple. Ask yourself this question, “Am I being who and what Jesus wants me to be so that he is honored and glorified and my neighbor is loved with the love of Christ?” It is all about following Scripture and not our cultural, political, social, or economic ideology. Loving them does not mean ignoring disagreements by covering over everything to avoid conflict. It does mean treating people with the dignity that comes with being made in the image of God. It means being willing to admit your own errors while giving them the benefit of the doubt and being willing to actually serve them as Jesus serves you. It means trusting that God is sovereign and there is no need for a follower of Jesus to fear conspiracy theories or give in to hate.
Keep the Great Commandment always before your eyes, Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. Anything that leads you away from that is leading you to lose your way.
The First Sermon in a Four Week Series Leading to Christmas
We are taking a deep dive into the first two chapters of the Gospel of Luke to get a better appreciation for the events leading up to and following the birth of Jesus.
Relax, It’s Only an Election
In the history of the United States of America we have held 58 Presidential elections prior to 2020. Just to give you some historical perspective, in 18 of those elections, the person who went on to the White House received LESS THAN 50% of the popular vote. In 47 of the 58 elections a swing of 5% would have put the losing candidate in the White House. That means that in pretty much every election we have had, half the country wants one thing and half want another.
Why do I point that out? In part it is because we seem to have a utter lack of historical perspective these days. Everything is Unprecedented, The Worst Ever, Like Nothing Ever Seen Before. That fact is, like Ecclesiastes says, there is nothing new under the sun.
On Wednesday morning, or whenever this thing gets decided, half of the people in this country will feel as if they have won the powerball lottery and the next four years will be great and half will feel defeated, mortified and that the next four years will be the start of the apocalypse. This year more than ever that seems to be the case but it is not unique. I remember Christians being mortified when Bill Clinton got elected, especially the second time. But we survived. I remember people being incensed when Nixon was elected and we even survived that. No matter what side of the aisle you are on, we will survive and eventually thrive, no matter who wins. It is part of the reason we vote every four years. We get the chance to correct whatever mistakes we think we made. If we cannot survive and even thrive for four years under any president then we have bigger issues than who the president is.
No matter who wins the presidential election, (and I am writing before any polls have closed or announcements made), we will, or at least we should, do like we have done for the last 58 elections. We will continue this great experiment of a country we have that was unlike anything ever seen before its founding and has been the example that so many other countries have built their constitutions on. We will continue to be the country that unlike any other, people want to move to.
Yet I have one thing further to say as a follower of Jesus. No matter who wins, the Bible is clear that I am to pray for that person to be a great leader and to lead with wisdom and justice. I am also called to honor that person, which means none of the vindictive, biting, hateful things that so many people resort to in our era of social media, where you type things you would never say to a person’s face. And before you come up with some lame excuse for not honoring whoever is president, remember the people who wrote in the Bible that we are to honor anyone in leadership over us had Nero as an emperor, and he went on to use Christians as human tiki torches to light the streets of Rome. But they didn’t whine and complain about it. So suck it up. It also means never saying, “not my president” unless you have renounced your citizenship. It does mean loving anyone who voted otherwise, NO MATTER WHAT.
If you are a follower of Christ this is a time to remember that you have Jesus as your king and he calls you to love everyone, even those who you disagree with vehemently and even if they persecute you. And by persecute he didn’t mean they call you names. He meant enemies who want to take your life. You are to actually pray for them and bless them.
So no matter who wins this election, followers of Jesus should be filled with grace, humility, love for others, and a confidence that Jesus is still King and no matter what, we will survive and thrive and share the Good News of Jesus wherever and whenever.