Friday, May 17, 2019

Hearing God Say "I Love You"

So I was reading through some chapters of Isaiah the other day with my friend Janet, and I was struck by this particular passage (Isaiah 43:1-4, emphasis added):
Now, this is what the Lord says,
the one who created you, O Jacob,
and formed you, O Israel:
“Don’t be afraid, for I will protect you.
I call you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I am with you;
when you pass through the streams, they will not overwhelm you.
When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned;
the flames will not harm you.
For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your deliverer.
I have handed over Egypt as a ransom price,
Ethiopia and Seba in place of you.
Since you are precious and special in my sight,
and I love you
I will hand over people in place of you,
nations in place of your life.
 The verse in bold really hit me hard - it surprised me.

I feel like, growing up in the church, we've always been taught that God loves us, but it sometimes has a tendency to feel really intellectual or abstract.  We quote John 3:16 all the time - "For God so loved the world," and hey, "the world" includes me, so I guess that means God loves me?  Right?  I mean, it makes logical sense, I guess.

But there is something far more impactful about hearing God say the words, in first person, "I love you."

And he actually says those words in the book of Isaiah.

I remember a period when I was part of a small house church in Boston.  We were trying to understand the concept of "listening to God."  Many of us were used to praying to God, but we were definitely not used to quietly listening for his voice.  It felt more than a little strange, and kind of awkward.

I'm not sure I ever "figured it out," although I remember one time I was trying to meditate quietly and listen as best as I could, and as bizarre as it may sound, I actually did think I heard something from God - and it was those three words: "I love you."  It was a very weird feeling, and I was not sure of what I had experienced.  If I remember correctly, I pretty much kept it to myself, uncertain.

At the next church house meeting, another young lady shared her experience with trying to "listen to God," and her description of her awkward and strange attempts felt like it could easily have been mine.  And she shared what she thought was the only thing she had heard - and how she felt it couldn't be right, it was too simple, it was what she wanted to hear, etc. - and it was exactly the same thing I had heard - "I love you."

I felt like that confirmed it for me.  I believe God is waiting to tell those three words to anybody who will hear them.

He said it directly in Isaiah 43, after all, so it's not unprecedented.

But Chris, you might be saying, Isaiah 43 wasn't written to you.  It was written to the people of Israel.  Yeah, you're right.  And guess what?  Through the sacrifice of Jesus, those who call on his name are grafted in to the tree of Israel, so yeah, it applies to me, and it applies to anyone in Jesus.

In fact, John 3:16 makes it clear that God's love is beyond even Israel or those who are in Christ - he loves the world.  God's love is the starting point for us all.

But yes, if you want the particular promises of Isaiah to apply to you, reconciliation with God is available to you right now through Jesus.  God is longing to say "You are precious and special in my sight and I love you" to everyone who will hear it - and he sent his son as a confirmation.  That reconciliation can be had through him right now - if you're not sure on the particulars, go and ask any of your Christ-following friends.  I'm sure anybody would be ecstatic to share.

No matter what you think you've done, or how far away you think you are, the Creator God of the universe has something important he wants to tell you.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

When Abraham Judged God

A little while ago at church we talked about Genesis 18 - you know, the one where Abraham "bargains with God" to prevent the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.  This is a particularly rich and interesting passage, and a lot of good points can be made from it, but I had a thought about it that maybe... er... a bit different.  I'll see what you think about it.

Let's consider how Abraham starts the famous conversation after he learns that God is considering wiping Sodom and Gomorrah from the planet:
23 Then Abraham approached him and said: “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? 24 What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it? 25 Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?”
This is absolutely fascinating to me.  Check out that language: "Far be it from you!"  Twice!  Asking if God will "do right!"  Let's be frank about what Abraham is doing here.  As best as I can figure, he is judging God.  He is accusing God of doing something wrong (or potentially wrong, at least) by destroying the two cities.  From my perspective, of course, this is an absolutely ludicrous thing to say, as it's God who defines right and wrong, not us.  But Abraham doesn't seem to see any irony in his own words.  I imagine that Abraham is legitimately and emotionally grieved and angered by God's plan.

Why?  Well, Abraham's nephew Lot and his family are there, for one thing.  Perhaps Abraham is being totally upfront with his argument - he just doesn't like the idea of whole cities getting judged and destroyed, when innocent people (relatives of his or otherwise) might get caught in the crossfire.  Abraham apparently imagines that God has not thought of this already, and this provokes righteous anger in Abraham.  "HOW DARE YOU" he is basically saying to God.  That's a pretty serious thing to say.

Now, notice how God reacts.  If you've read the book of Job, you might imagine that God will respond with two chapters or more of "putting Abraham in his place," reminding him who is actually sovereign, and who is not.  But that's not what he says:
26 The Lord said, “If I find fifty righteous people in the city of Sodom, I will spare the whole place for their sake.”
Well, gee.  All right, then.  That was easy.

Perhaps a little too easy.

Notice that immediately Abraham is not satisfied with this:
27 Then Abraham spoke up again: “Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, though I am nothing but dust and ashes, 28 what if the number of the righteous is five less than fifty? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five people?”
I find this humorous, although I suppose I shouldn't, as the subject matter is pretty awful.  But nonetheless, I have to imagine that as easily as God agreed, the first thought passing through Abraham's mind must have been, "Uh oh... what if there's not fifty righteous people?  Fifty's an awfully big number... maybe it'd be safer to try 45."  (Notice how he backs away from his earlier tone and becomes a touch more humble - is he realizing he might have overstepped his bounds a bit with his previous tirade?)

And again, God agrees easily, but even that's not good enough. And so he "negotiates" God down step by step - 45, 40, 30, 20, and finally 10.  And each time, God agrees simply and calmly without argument or criticism.

In the next chapter God rains burning sulfur on Sodom and Gomorrah.

Apparently 10 wasn't a low enough number.

I have heard people in various Sunday School classes and so forth make the case that this is a prime example of intercessory prayer changing God's mind.  While there are other Bible stories that demonstrate this, that's not what this particular case is, I don't think.  Rather, this is a prime example of God gently and mercifully changing Abraham's mind.

Abraham did not trust God.  He lashed out in anger at God, morally judging his intentions.  He believed himself to be a better arbiter of good and evil than God.  But over the course of the conversation, without God having to say even one single cross word - simply by agreeing with Abraham over and over - Abraham starts to gradually realize that God might have a far better idea of how many righteous people there are in the cities, and whether they deserved destruction, than Abraham.  Maybe God already stayed his hand for a very long time for the sake of innocent people (recall how the Israelites couldn't enter the Promised Land until the sin of the Canaanites was complete).  Maybe Abraham started to realize that God's justice and wisdom and mercy is beyond ours, and that Abraham wasn't telling God anything he didn't already know.

In the next chapter, God (rather forcibly) leads Abraham's relatives out of the city before destroying it, explicitly for Abraham's sake.  God took care of Abraham, even though I would've thought God would've been insulted and angered by Abraham's lack of trust.

And honestly, that's kind of convicting to me.  I hear people judging God all the time - and I don't mean just people understandably caught up in the emotions of grief, or people honestly wrestling with questions.  I mean people just straight up accusing God of doing wrong - the things he allows, does, or doesn't do.  "Far be it from you!" and so forth.  My gut-level reaction to this is to want to respond with mockery and sarcasm.  It's so obviously foolish and self-defeating.  I want God to "speak from the whirlwind" as he did at the end of Job, putting everybody in their place.

But that's not always what God does.  I'm not even convinced that's mostly what God does.  He didn't with Abraham, after all.  He responded gently, quietly, with mercy, allowing Abraham to work things out on his own.  It's possible that there are cases where we need to rebuke judgmental thinking about God, but I suspect there are more cases where we need to respond with the mercy and patience and understanding that God showed.

What do you think?

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

How Should We Respond to Feeling Judged?

Let's talk about judgment (yay!).  I've heard a lot of sermons and Sunday School lessons on the topic of whether we should judge - a very important topic.  Jesus's discussion of judging others in the Sermon on the Mount and Paul's discussion of the topic in the first few chapters of Romans is absolutely worth spending time on.  But there's a different, related question that I feel wasn't covered nearly enough in the church circles I grew up in: how should you, as a Christian, respond when someone else is judging you?

As I watch (and sometimes try hard not to watch) social media and American culture, I get the impression that this topic is becoming increasingly important.  There's a lot - a lot - of judgment and criticism being thrown around, and it's not the easiest thing in the world to respond well to.  I know I certainly don't.  And in fact, I would argue that I'm very much not alone in that.  A lot of people - both inside and outside the church - react very poorly (shall we say) to other people's judgment.

Have you ever found yourself on social media wondering, "How could that person possibly believe that obviously false thing?" or "How could that person possibly maintain such a flagrant double standard with a straight face?" or "How could that person possibly support X politician from X political party that does X horrible things?" or "Why does that person feel the need to constantly spew venom all over Facebook and Twitter?  Why can't they ever take a break to talk about puppies?"  I am starting to believe that, a huge percentage of the time, such behavior is a defensive reaction to feeling judged.

How, you may ask?  Well, consider how YOU feel when you are judged or criticized.  If you are a human being like I am, the odds are it's going to make you angry and defensive.  It is remarkable to me how much we value our honor.  I keep hearing Americans talk about "honor cultures" as though they only existed in some remote part of Central Asia or on Klingon spaceships, but yes, even we Americans care deeply about honor and shame.  There's only so much disrespect a person can tolerate - defense mechanisms eventually kick in and we start acting to regain what we've lost.  Granted, not everyone is as sensitive to honor and shame as others are.  But throw in the element of moral guilt, and now just about everybody is sensitive.  Some people can tolerate being thought ill of or treated disrespectfully.  Pretty much nobody can tolerate thinking of themselves as evil.  God designed us with a powerful intolerance of moral guilt.  We will go to extraordinary lengths to consider ourselves basically decent human beings.  If you accuse me of doing evil, I have to do something to prevent the accusation from landing.  And that something is often the source of a lot of ugliness.

Let's take an example.  Imagine that there's somebody in your workplace or school (or somewhere else where you have to be on a regular basis) who is a dietary zealot.  Maybe he's one of those paleo/CrossFit types, or a militant vegan, or a raw fruitarian, or an adherent to some new, crazy fad diet, but whichever way, this person not only feels that he has found a diet that works for him, but he has found the one true diet for all of humanity.  Especially you.  And every time you find yourself in the cafeteria or going out to eat with this person, you know you're about to get a lengthy lecture.  He's going to smirk at your hastily packed lunch and roll his eyes a lot.  Maybe he's going to make jokes about how you're slowly killing yourself with your processed garbage.  It won't take long before this guy is going to seriously get on your nerves.

However, you might actually be able to tolerate this to some degree.  You might be pretty secure in your self-image.  There's a chance you won't feel any need to react to this, even if it goes on for years.  But now imagine that he starts throwing in a moral element to his criticisms.  Maybe that ham sandwich is cruelty to animals.  Maybe that allegedly healthy whole-grain sandwich is somehow contributing to planetary destruction via global warming.  Maybe the diabetes of which you will very shortly die is going to bankrupt the country's medical system.  Maybe feeding your children like that it tantamount to child abuse.  But whatever the particulars of his argument are, the upshot is not just that you are foolish for eating your diet, but that you are wicked.  Now the ante is upped.  Eventually, the constant drumbeat of moral indictment is going to build to a climax and provoke your defense mechanisms.  You're going to get angry.

And that anger is going to make you want to do 2 things, as anger does:
  1. Punish the perpetrator
  2. Morally indict the perpetrator
Given that you are an adult, you are unlikely to just go over and slug the guy in the face (although you may feel the urge).  But you will want to do something to cause him pain.  That's what anger does - it creates a need to punish.  We get better at resisting the urge as we age, but it's still there, boiling under the surface.  But that's not the only urge.  God designed human anger to be intimately tied to our sense of morality.  When someone does something that angers us, it's not enough that we don't like it - it must also be morally wrong.  The four-year-old boy who is put in time out for hitting his sister with a truck cries "It's not fair!  It's not fair!" about his punishment, even when most anybody else would find it the very definition of fairness.  Anger creates in us the powerful urge to moralize.  What was done to us must be cosmically unjust, and the person who did it must be wicked.

So going back to our friend the dietary zealot, we can see how his continual moral criticism of us might provoke a desire not just to punish him, but to judge him right back.  Throwing his judgment back in his face serves two purposes here - not only does it satisfy our anger, it also nullifies his moral judgment of us.  If he is wicked, he is in no place to criticize (or at least, that's how it feels).

What does this look like in practice?  Maybe another coworker comes by our office and casually refers to the zealot as a "self-righteous jerk" and we nod along grimly.  We latch onto the word "self-righteous" (or "judgmental" or "puritanical" or "priggish" or "hysterical" or "virtue signalling" or similar), as it makes it sound like his moral judgment of us is wicked somehow (and therefore unjustified), and that feels good.  Or maybe we see an article on Facebook about a scientfic study suggesting that the zealot's diet increases cancer risk by 3%.  Maybe we go ahead and click "Share" on that study without first checking to see if the study is any good.  Or maybe we latch onto the idea that it's his diet that's so harmful and evil, and the guy is a massive hypocrite (we LOVE the word "hypocrite," as though the problem was his failure to live up to his own standard, rather than the fact that he uses his standard to judge us).  The "fact" that his diet causes cancer may even become truer than truth to us.  It should be true, therefore it is true.  And why should it be true?  Because it proves that our moral accusers are wicked.  It restores our honor, and eliminates our guilt.  Maybe a new diet guru rises up who promises a more moral, healthier diet by eating all the opposite things that our coworker recommends ("It's the Krispy Kreme Kleanse!"), and we gradually start to become a devotee.  The articles and books from the guru "just make sense."  "It's like he's saying everything I've thought all these years, but couldn't articulate," we say.  Maybe the guru comes up with nasty nicknames for adherents to alternative diets, and we eat it up, and occasionally parrot the insults to others.  When we see one of our other coworkers head to the "heart-healthy" line of the cafeteria, we roll our eyes and make snide remarks at her.  And the circle is complete!  We have become the very thing we hated.

I believe that a tremendous amount of the judgment we experience is, in fact, defensive.  It's a reaction to previously experienced judgment, protecting and shoring up a person's honor and moral status.  That Facebook "friend" spewing hateful invective all over your social media feeds is likely to be doing so because somebody else was spewing hateful invective to them.  In the same way that violence spawns violence, judgment spawns judgment.  Moral accusation is frequently retaliatory.

What does this mean?

It means somebody's gotta stop the cycle.

Which is why I think it's important to figure out how not to react defensively to human judgments.  For a Christian to be able to "judge not" as Jesus commanded, it would help a lot, I think, to "react not."  We will be a lot less likely to judge our neighbors if we do not allow our defensive anger to control us.

But how do you do that?  If my own experience has taught me anything, it's that underreacting to people's judgment is extremely challenging.  Of course, it could be that I'm a lot more sensitive than most people (at least, I hope that's true, for everyone else's sake!), but I suspect I am not alone in feeling the need to judge people back.  And what makes it harder is that there's no avoiding other people's judgment!  You have no real control over whether other people condemn you.  You can pretty much expect judgment to come your way.

Jesus says as much himself.  There are two things that Jesus said that sum this up extremely well:
  1. "You will be hated by everyone because of me." (Matthew 10:22)
  2. "[The world] hates me because I testify that its works are evil." (John 7:7)
As Christians, we could be as kind, generous, loving, and merciful as we possibly could be (and we should be!), and some people will still hate and judge us.  Why?  Because we are aligned with Jesus, who judges them.  And we can't change that.  God created us and instructed us on how he wants us to live - what he wants us to do with our time, money, relationships, sexuality, and energy.  And we would really rather not live that way.  So humanity reacts to God, to his judgment, and to anyone who aligns with him.  This is the awkward fact at the root of the issue: the cycle of judgment began with God.  So unless we disown God, hatred will certainly come our way from some people.  There will be people who want to throw God's judgment back in his face by judging him and the church.  There's no getting around it.

So how do we not add to the problem?  How do we not hate back?

The Bible is not silent on this subject.  As hated as you might feel by the hysterical people on social media, American Christians have absolutely nothing on the serious persecution affecting the early church.  Yet the Bible has a lot of words encouraging us to not hate back.  So here are some ideas that might be helpful, taken from scripture:
  1. Remember the Greater Future Reward
    In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.  Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you."  Jesus isn't telling you to feel happy when you are insulted just because he said to.  He's offering you a reason to feel happy - there's a fantastic reward coming if you hold fast.  Remember that staying true to God's word and not responding to hatred with hatred will pay off in incredible ways in the long run.
  2. Take Active Steps to Reconcile With People Where You Can
    Sometimes people are going to hate you for no good reason.  Other times, they'll be upset for something you did that you shouldn't have done, or something that can be fixed.  We need to make every effort to reduce and eliminate those times, and do what we can to make things right when we screw up.  Also in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus urges his followers: "if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.  Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison."  If you can without violating God's principles, apologize!  Many times you can stop the cycle of judgment immediately.  Paul also talks about this in Romans 12: "Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone.  If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone."
  3. Remember God's Character
    Here's Jesus again, from the Sermon on the Mount: "You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous."  Check out that language - God provides good things to not just good people, but evil people as well.  And Jesus encourages us to do likewise - to do good to people regardless of their moral status.  What gives you the right to act in hatred where God does not?
  4. Give Your Anger to God, He Will Repay
    In the book of Romans, Paul talks about revenge: "Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord."  If you are struggling with anger toward someone, remember that giving it to God does not mean justice will never be done.  It means that you are allowing God - the ultimate and righteous judge - to do his job, to judge and punish (and show mercy) as only he can.  It is easier to let go of anger knowing that justice is in the hands of the ultimate king.
  5. Remember Jesus's Example
    It can be encouraging to remember that Jesus went ahead of us.  Consider the book of 1 Peter: "To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.  He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.  When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly."
  6. Consider the Practical Benefits of Gentleness
    Peter also brings up another point: "Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander."  By being gentle and respectful, those observing stand a chance of seeing the hate that is driving your accusers, and therefore societal shame will work in your favor.
  7. Remember What Really Justifies You
    We are justified by God's grace alone - if we understand our own sin, and how forgiven we are, we can work at resting our identities in God's justification.  That means that when someone judges us or rebukes us, we can humbly accept the parts that are true, and react with more self-control to the parts that aren't.  This isn't easy, of course, but I think it's something we can grow in.
  8. Ask God for Help
    "Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.  For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened."  Non-retalation is hard.  Ask God for good gifts.
I feel like this is really just scratching the surface of this topic - arguably the entire book of 1 Peter is dedicated to it.  But hopefully this is a start, at least.

So I would really encourage you, whenever you feel judged or hated, to stop and take stock of what your defensiveness is making you want to do.  Then think of Jesus's example, let God handle the justice, and show mercy to your enemy.

Maybe, here and there, we can stop the cycle.

Monday, April 16, 2018

On Being "Just Sad"

I'm not super proud of this, but sometimes when I pray for "peace" for a person or a family that's experienced a loss, what I'm thinking deep down is something like, "Oh well, there's not much to pray for now, but peace is better than nothing I guess."

Well, I may not have had these thoughts exactly, but on some subconscious level, it's as though I place a value on things like physical healing - things that alleviate the immediate cause of suffering - whereas things like "peace," "strength," "wisdom," and so forth are just kind of nice, fluffy words that sound good but don't really mean anything.  They're things to pray for when you don't have anything better to pray for.

Can anyone relate to that, or am I alone in this?

I'm starting to realize something about this, though.

I think specifically back to last year when my dad passed away.  He was in the hospital for quite a long time, and had been sick in various ways a long time before that, so it was definitely not sudden or entirely unexpected, but it was still very difficult.

I remember one of my friends asking me a pretty awkward and blunt question during the week of the funeral - "So what's it like," he asked, "losing your dad?"  I was a little startled by this - it's not something I was super comfortable talking about, but I tried to answer anyway.  "I don't know..." I said.  "I'm just... sad."  "Just sad?" he repeated back.  "Yeah."  It may have sounded like a cop-out to him, but that's really all I had.  I was just sad.

In my head, I wondered whether he thought I ought to feel a stew of other emotions.  Was I supposed to be angry?  Guilty?  Hopeless?  Fearful or worried?  For the most part, I honestly wasn't any of those things.  And it occurred to me.  I easily could've been.  I could've been angry at doctors and hospitals for not doing what I thought they should've been doing (as clearly I know so much more than everyone).  I could've easily felt guilty for things I should've done better - ways I didn't help enough, or wasn't there enough.  In fact, at various points along the way, I had felt these things.  But right then, at the moment where my sadness peaked, I didn't feel any of that stuff.  Whatever anger and guilt I might have felt was gone.  There was no hopelessness, no fear.  Just sadness.

And although it feels a little weird to me to say, being "just sad" suddenly felt like a huge blessing.  And I mean blessing in a very literal sense.  It felt like being able to be "just sad" had been provided as a gift.  It felt like I was being prayed for, and consequently protected to some degree.  It was a surprisingly strong feeling.  The book of James famously tells us that "the prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective," and it felt to me like there were people out there praying for peace for my family, and God, mercifully, was answering it -- in a way that I could understand and feel.

I think about one of my favorite passages in Philippians 4:
"6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus."
Do I believe that God will do that?  That God can give a peace that transcends all understanding?

I think he did.  It certainly transcended my understanding.

It turned out that peace, in that particular time, wasn't just a nice-sounding, fluffy word.  It was an actual, comprehensible, visceral gift.

This may be something that other long-time Christians are way ahead of me on, but where I am now, I'm starting to realize that things like "peace," "strength," and "wisdom" aren't just fluffy words that mean little - they're actual blessings that God can and does provide in ways that surprise and glorify him.  They're things we can ask for and things he can give, and they mean a lot.  And I'm grateful for it.

I know very well that not all prayers get answered the way we want, but there are times when God says "yes" to a prayer for peace, and I think it pays to keep those times in mind.  I now remember hearing other people share similar experiences in their own life - but I guess it takes experiencing it oneself to let it sink in sometimes.

So I encourage you to treat those prayers as prayers that God will answer, and in a way that people will notice, and will be to his glory.

Monday, January 29, 2018

How to Remember Which of Paul's Letters is Which

I like to think of myself as a "why" learner.  I learn things much better when you tell me why I should care - that is, when I have a larger framework to work from.  I got super frustrated in Algebra II when we learned about matrices (a system for organizing numbers into rectangular grids that involves a whole lot of pointless-feeling arithmetic).  I would ask the teacher, "Why?  What is this FOR?" and she would just say, "It'll be important in later math classes."  That didn't help.  It all felt very arbitrary.  I felt like I had to look up every formula every time because I didn't understand the PURPOSE that would have made it make sense.

Other math students were "how" learners, though.  They seemed to just want to be told what they needed to solve the problem, and anything else - any stories, any context, any larger framework - was just extraneous details that confused the issue.  They didn't mind straight-up memorization.  One time in college, when a substitute math professor came in, he told all kinds of funny stories and tried to explain the math from the perspective of why we care - I absolutely loved it, but I was shocked to hear other students complain afterwards about his teaching style.  Clearly, different people prefer to learn in different ways.

But perhaps there are other people out there who, like me, prefer "frameworks" to hang their knowledge on.  I CAN memorize lists of things for tests if I try hard, but I forget it pretty much immediately afterward.  But if you give me a framework for understanding things, I'm much more likely to retain the information later.

I feel that way about Bible knowledge.  As a kid, I remember wondering how grown-ups at church always seemed to be able to quote chapter and verse so often.  Sure, we had memory verses, and I would memorize them for Sunday School, but they didn't stay memorized long.  Is that what the adults were doing?  Memorizing a LOT of verses and which book and chapter they came from?  How did they retain all that info?

Growing up, the information in the Bible frequently felt unorganized - stories and teachings and individual verses would be quoted with no particular pattern to them, so it just seemed like the Bible was a random collection of stuff.  I had no idea how Sunday School teachers figured out which verses to have us go read.  It all seemed kind of mysterious.

It got a little better, though, as I got older.  At one point in Sunday School, they taught us a song with all the books of the New Testament.  Believe it or not, this was super helpful.  It meant that (at least for the New Testament), I didn't have to go to the table of contents to find any particular book.  I knew what order things were in, so I could flip there more or less quickly.  We had "Bible drills," where the teacher would call out a chapter and verse and we would race to see who could find it.  Unfortunately, if you had to stop and hum a few bars of the kid's song, you were at a distinct disadvantage.

Knowing the names of the books is helpful, but it's not really enough.  It still didn't tell me what each book was ABOUT, which is far more important.  One of the most helpful Sunday School lessons I ever had came from Jon Shoulders, our church's youth minister at the time, who came down to the kid's room to teach us about the different sections of the Bible.  This was HUGE to me.  I'm talking about how the first five books are the Law, then there's History, then there's Poetry, etc etc.  Suddenly the Bible felt organized!  I had a framework to go on.  Now if you asked me where such-and-such a story was, or such-and-such a teaching was, I had a much better chance of pointing you to the right part of the Bible, even if I couldn't have told you chapter and verse.

But is there anywhere else to go from there other than memorization?  Just read and keep reading the Bible and eventually get so familiar with it you can impress all your friends and relatives in class with your Bible knowledge (because, obviously, this is what impresses people...)?  Well, to some extent, yes.  But I wonder if there may be another in-between step that we could teach people that would help them bridge the gap somewhat.

That is, what if we came up with a way to succinctly describe what each book is ABOUT in a way that's easier to remember?  Like, say, one of the major themes of the book?

I remember a preacher named Jeff Walling actually did this at a youth rally when I was a teenager, and I really appreciated it.  He went over the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) and gave us a single word for each one to describe the difference between them.  The only one I remember exactly is the word for John: "Whoaaa..." said like a surfer.  But I remember the gist of them all.  John was the emotional gospel, the one about all the cool, deep, theologial connections.  Matthew was the Jewish-centric one, Luke was the Gentile-centric one, and Mark was the short one - straight and to the point.  Jeff Walling was giving me a framework.  Because of the way I learn, it was very, very helpful.

So could we do something like that for the whole Bible?  What about Paul's letters?  It's easy to feel like Paul's letters just kind of all run together in a big blob sometimes, but there really are different themes and focuses in each one.

So I'm gonna try something.  I'm gonna try to come up with a word or phrase for each of Paul's letters that describes a major theme or something distinctive about the book, and that STARTS WITH THE SAME LETTER as the book.  And then you can tell me, if you are a framework-based learner like me, if you think this would be helpful!  So here goes:

Romans: Redemption
1 Corinthians: Church
2 Corinthians: Collection
Galatians: Grace vs Legalism
Ephesians: Encouragement
Philippians: Peace
Colossians: Counter-asceticism
1 and 2 Thessalonians: The End of the World
1 and 2 Timothy, Titus: Tending the Flock
Philemon: Personal letter

There may be better choices for some of these - perhaps you could help me think of some!  But I like the general idea.

Romans is a tough one, as it's so central and so important - it's basically the full gospel explained in lengthy detail.  So "redemption" covers a lot, but then, so does "reconciliation," "righteousness", and "right with God."  Could be the "roadmap to reconciliation."  Or "all roads lead to Romans."  There are a number of possibilities.

Thessalonians is also tricky, because the theme is so clear - dealing with Jesus's second coming - but that phrase (or anything related I can think of) doesn't start with T.  But maybe sticking a big "THE" in there is just silly enough to be memorable!

Most of the others I feel a little better about.  Ephesians really is a very positive, encouraging letter.  Philippians has a lot to say about peace (and joy) - the famous "peace that passeth understanding" passage is there.  Colossians is about more than fighting off bad theology like asceticism, but it's definitely in there.  Galatians could be just "grace," but it's such a combative book I feel like a "vs." is required.  1 Corinthians covers a lot of stuff about church practices and has a lot about church unity - communion, speaking in tongues, worship, etc.  To reduce 2 Corinthians to an appeal for money might go too far - but even though there's more to it than JUST that, it's still a big part of the book.  Timothy and Titus have a lot of stuff about being an elder or a deacon, or how to run the church as a practical matter.

So what do you think?  Would something like this be helpful?  How would you summarize Paul's letters?

And then, a bonus challenge... can you do it for the Minor Prophets? (sinister laugh)

Friday, November 10, 2017

Was Jesus a Democrat, Republican, Pharisee or Sadducee?

"Asking whether Jesus is a Democrat or Republican is like asking whether he was a Pharisee or Sadducee."

I distinctly remember my dad delivering this line to me.  I don't remember where he got it from, or whether he came up with it himself, but I do remember one thing very strongly:

I really liked it.

It made perfect sense to me.  Jesus did not conform to the labels and factions of his day.  The Pharisees and Sadducees, two Jewish sects, fought over various theological issues, but Jesus never identified with either.  In fact, not only did he criticize both sects during his ministry, but Jesus arguably reserved his harshest language for them both.  Jesus was interested in the truth, regardless of who it offended.

So dad's statement made sense to me.  I could more or less analogize the Pharisees and Sadducees to our modern political parties.  The Pharisees believed in the coming resurrection of the dead, angels, and spirits.  They were more small town, more religiously conservative, arguably more populist.  The Sadducees were more urban, more involved in the temple power structure.  They denied the resurrection, angels, and spirits.  So, very roughly, I could see the metaphor.  Jesus would probably be yelling at both Republicans and Democrats in the same way he yelled at both sects of his time.

And honestly, I think at some level, I liked it because it made me feel like I was "above" the petty tribal disputes of the political parties.  I imagined that Jesus simply had bigger fish to fry than whatever the sects were arguing about.  I liked the feeling that my fried fish were bigger, too.

So did that mean Jesus was some kind of... I don't know... moderate?  Did he have some "third way?"  Would he have registered as an independent?  Or would he have perhaps stayed home on election day?

Well, I've been rethinking this idea a little bit lately, especially after having read a certain strange passage in the book of Acts that I had long forgotten about.  Here, Paul is on trial before the Sanhedrin for preaching Christ:
6 Now when Paul perceived that one part were Sadducees and the other Pharisees, he cried out in the council, “Brothers, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees. It is with respect to the hope and the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial.” 7 And when he had said this, a dissension arose between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the assembly was divided. 8 For the Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, nor angel, nor spirit, but the Pharisees acknowledge them all. 9 Then a great clamor arose, and some of the scribes of the Pharisees' party stood up and contended sharply, “We find nothing wrong in this man. What if a spirit or an angel spoke to him?” 10 And when the dissension became violent, the tribune, afraid that Paul would be torn to pieces by them, commanded the soldiers to go down and take him away from among them by force and bring him into the barracks. (Acts 23:6-10)
I actually found this a bit amusing.  It feels like Paul is cynically manipulating his accusers by playing them against each other - by taking sides in the battle of the sects, so to speak.  He's being very tactical here.  But there's an interesting little fact about what Paul says that I hadn't really considered until recently:

It's all true.

Paul may be cynically manipulating the court, but nothing he said was a lie.  He was a Pharisee. He did believe in the resurrection of the dead, and, in fact, this concept is extremely important to Christianity, which he was on trial for.  So I had this rather surprising realization (for me, at least):

While Jesus would never have identified with either Jewish sect, on the particular issues that divided them, Jesus agreed with the Pharisees down the line.

In that respect, you could even argue that Christianity was an offshoot of Pharisaic Judaism.  This is a bit awkward, as Jesus and the Pharisees yelled at each other a lot.  We also can't ignore the fact that the Pharisees spent a tremendous amount of energy trying to murder Jesus (and ultimately succeeding).  Jesus consistently spoke of the Pharisees as a "them."  He was not even slightly part of their tribe.  But on the question of the resurrection, he agreed with the Pharisees completely.
23 That same day the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to [Jesus] with a question. 24 “Teacher,” they said, “Moses told us that if a man dies without having children, his brother must marry the widow and raise up offspring for him. 25 Now there were seven brothers among us. The first one married and died, and since he had no children, he left his wife to his brother. 26 The same thing happened to the second and third brother, right on down to the seventh. 27 Finally, the woman died. 28 Now then, at the resurrection, whose wife will she be of the seven, since all of them were married to her?” 
29 Jesus replied, “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God. 30 At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven.31 But about the resurrection of the dead—have you not read what God said to you, 32 ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living.” 
33 When the crowds heard this, they were astonished at his teaching. 
(Matthew 22:23-33)
Did you catch that?  Jesus is vociferously defending Pharisaism from the Sadducees.  He is defending the positions of the people who hate him and want to kill him -- people who drove him to use his harshest and angriest language.

I suppose that's not too shocking, given that Jesus was just saying what he knew to be true, but still, it has implications for the here and now.

I think a lot of Christians, including me, have an easy time criticizing "our" political party (whichever one we identify with most).  We're happy to say that we may agree with the party on certain issues, but we're definitely NOT one of those "my party right or wrong" people.  Our faith comes first.

Fair enough.  But there's a harder implication.  To stand for the truth, you have to be willing to do more than disagree with "your" side.  You have to be willing to agree with the "other" side, even vehemently argue for it, if they happen to be right.  Even if they hate you.  Even if they wish you were dead.  Even if their leaders are as corrupt and evil as the Pharisees were.  Could you do that?  Or have you responded in anger to the point where you can't possibly bring yourself to agree with them on any issue?

Could you do what Jesus did and argue for a position taken by people who enrage you?  Can you be on God's side not only when it disagrees with "us," but when it agrees with "them?"

Maybe that's easy for you.  I don't know.  I find it challenging, and something to be praying about.

And I wonder how many of us are willing to take that step...

Monday, October 9, 2017

The Real Opposite of People Pleasing?

"People-pleasing behavior" has been one of my particular struggles for a long time.  The general idea, as I understand the term, is that you take on a lot of responsibility, run yourself ragged trying to meet other people's demands, never say "no" to anyone, and eventually burn out.  This is a struggle for a lot of people, as I have learned, both inside and outside the church.

Now, one of the typical solutions offered by the secular world is the idea of "self care."  The idea is that you're supposed to explicitly take time to rest and recharge - to allow yourself to be "selfish" from time to time so that you do not stress yourself out and die from a wicked case of acid reflux.  There is a certain amount of sense to this - even if your whole goal in life is to meet your responsibility to other people, it certain doesn't help your cause to make yourself sick by overwork.  Taking time to rest is important,  and that's a perfectly fair and even Biblical concept.

But this idea is, at the very least, remarkably incomplete, and possibly even problematic.  This is because I think the secular world frequently misdiagnoses the true root of people-pleasing behavior.  One of the underlying assumptions behind the idea of "self care" is that there's this fundamental split between "others" and "self."  The people-pleasing person is way too far on the "others" side, so they need to come more to the "self" side.  Generally, the diagnosis is that the people-pleasing person suffers from misplaced guilt about taking time for self, and so they need to question or even reject whatever moral standard it is that's causing them to ignore their own needs.  Therefore, the principal villain, in much of the secular world's eyes, is moral guilt.

This is not really my personal experience.

For me at least, the principal driving factor behind people-pleasing behavior is not guilt but fear - fear of people being angry at you, fear of being rejected.  In some people that have shared with me, this can come from a long history of actually being rejected.  As a result, people feel like they don't know how not to be rejected other than to do everything in their power to keep everyone around them happy.  People-pleasing frequently equates to a high degree of sensitivity to other people's anger or disapproval.  Because we people-pleasers fear rejection, we preemptively act in ways designed to eliminate the threat - take on all the responsibilities, meet all the needs, etc.

The issue is that, from a Christian perspective, a lot of the things that people-pleasers do are perfectly good and wonderful things to be doing.  They're frequently not wrong to be doing them.  After all, are we not told that the greatest commandments include loving your neighbor as yourself?  (Leviticus 19:18)  The Bible teaches a pretty radical kind of selflessness.

It's therefore not entirely out of left field that many in the secular world would love to saddle traditional moral authorities with the blame.  If the poor people-pleasers would just throw off the shackles of a higher moral authority, they would go binge watch Netflix and pornography and not care what anyone thought of them and be happy.  Right?

I've known a number of people throughout my life who appear to have reached precisely this conclusion - and at least one has told me so outright.  Sick of being "good" all their lives, such people decide that "self care" involves giving themselves permission to be "bad."  For them, the real enemy of their happiness was the moral authority they perceived to be condemning them.  If there are no more "shoulds" and "oughts," there's no more stress.

For a believing Christian, of course, this attitude is a complete non-starter.  But even for a secular person, I wonder whether it misses the point.  The people that I have observed to have made the decision to throw off moral authorities do not, from my vantage point, appear any more "free" than they did before.  Rather, they have swapped one emotional slavemaster for another.  Instead of being controlled by fear, they have given themselves over to resentment.

It kind of makes sense, though.  The people-pleaser, motivated by fear, gradually builds up a huge wad of unexpressed rage at the world around them - the world that rejected them in the first place and constantly threatens to reject them again lest they meet all the demands - until eventually anger kicks fear out of the driver's seat.

This is not, in my personal opinion, much of a win for the people-pleaser.  Neither the fear nor the resentment comes from a place of security, a place of love and acceptance.  You can trade a passive reaction for an active reaction (or vice versa) all day long but the problem isn't really being solved either way.  Whether giving ourselves up to please others, or raging at others in frustration, the underlying, incontrovertible fact of the matter is:

We don't have much control over whether other people reject us.

Not really.  We can fear it, we can react to it, but that little fact will still be true either way.  So what is to be done?  What's the real answer for a believing Christian who struggles with people-pleasing?

Well, I would propose that rather than trying to draw a line between "others" and "self," the truly important line is between pleasing people vs. pleasing God.  How can this be, you may ask?  Can't people run themselves just as ragged pleasing God as they can pleasing people?  How can that possibly help?  What's the difference?

I would propose to you that the difference is this:

God already loves and accepts you.

In Christ, we can be secure in God's acceptance of us.  People will sin.  People may hurt you or reject you and there's nothing you can do to prevent it.  God isn't like that.  For those who have turned their hearts to them, they have no need to fear his rejection.  By accepting ourselves that we are accepted by God through Christ, we can allow his love to inform who we are - I can become someone who is beloved, rather than someone who is always afraid of not being loved, or angry at having not been loved.  My desire to please God then comes from a place of security and love rather than a place of fear or anger.  God loved me first.  I didn't have to earn it - I received it by his grace alone.

Notice that Paul, who understood better than anyone else how radical and transformative God's grace is, still speaks of his desire to please God:
"So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it." (2 Corinthians 5:9)
There's nothing wrong with being a God-pleaser.  Truly pleasing God doesn't come from a place of insecurity, but a place of security.  Shortly before this verse in 2 Corinthians, Paul talks about how much he's longing for his eternal home in heaven - he has no doubt in his mind that he has a reward prepared for him.  He has no doubt that he's accepted and loved.  The presence of the Holy Spirit in him proves it -
"Now it is God who has made us for this very purpose and has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come." (2 Corinthians 5:5)
The purpose he speaks of is to be clothed in immortality - it's what we were made for!  Paul works to please God, but not from a place of fear or resentment.  God-pleasing, when one properly understands the nature of God, can only come from a place of love and acceptance - because that's what God wants.

Now, a lot of believing Christians have trouble with this.  For many of us, God appears almost exclusively as a judge - a condemning moral authority.  And God absolutely is a judge.  There's no denying it.

But if the people-pleaser struggles with feeling accepted by God, I would encourage them to read over passages like Jesus's parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector.  If you don't know it, please read it - I think it's really important.  I promise I'll still be here when you get back!

The Pharisee, although he was, in fact, a sinner, refused to admit his sins before God, and consequently was not justified.  The tax collector, however, arguably a much worse sinner, "went home justified."  For having done what?  He confessed what he had done.  And he found justification -  acceptance by God - waiting for him.

It therefore seems to me that a believing Christian who struggles with feeling accepted by God does so because they have not really allowed themselves to be broken before him - to admit their sin to themselves and to God.  God will absolutely show you what grace means - what it means to be accepted in spite of anything you've done - if you only turn to him.  He longs for reconciliation with you.  And he will work in you, transforming your very nature into someone who pleases him.

So that's the paradox then.  The people-pleaser's real enemy isn't fear or anger, but pride.  This is because pride is the only thing that prevents us from taking the solution to our insecurities that God is longing to give us.  But if we do take it - if we do turn our hearts to him, if we have the Holy Spirit - then we have all the acceptance and love of God that comes from being adopted as his children.
"For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.”  The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children." (Romans 8:14-16)
Take the security that God is offering you.

(P.S. If you are already someone who understands God's love and acceptance, I encourage you to show that same love and acceptance to others.  Since God's love can feel very abstract to people, help make it real by demonstrating it at a personal level.)