Tuesday, December 18, 2012

What Am I Reading?

I like to use the last couple of weeks of the year to look back and to look forward. I like to look back to see what I accomplished, if anything, worthwhile over the past year. I like to look back at my strengths and my weaknesses. I like to look forward to the new year to set goals. I like to think about how to improve my strengths and eliminate my weaknesses. I'm surprised by what I learn about myself each year.

Today, I was looking for a receipt for a watch that was supposed to be repaired under warranty, but that I got a bill for the repair. While looking for that receipt, I found several other receipts and I was quite surprised by what I found. I probably read more books this year than I have ever read in any year of my life.

Here are the books that I remember reading this year (the receipts helped me to remember), in no particular order. Just because I admit to reading a book doesn't mean that I recommend that you read it. Some of those books were a waste of my time. However, all of the running books were excellent if you're a runner. CS Lewis has some works that are better than others, but the two I read this year are among his best non-fiction. If  you're interested in the conditionalist position about hell, nobody sets it forward more thoroughly than Edward Fudge. And I had to know what all the Katniss Everdeen fuss was about.

  1. The Hunger Games - Suzanne Collins
  2. Catching Fire - Suzanne Collins
  3. Mockingjay - Suzanne Collins
  4. The Last Lecture - Randy Pausch
  5. The Fire That Consumes - Edward Fudge
  6. Hell: A Final Word - Edward Fudge
  7. The Churches of Christ in the 20th Century: Homer Hailey's Personal Journey of Faith - David Edwin Harrel, Jr. (2nd time through)
  8. Change Agents and Churches of Christ - William Woodson
  9. Daniels' Running Formula - Jack Daniels (3rd time through)
  10. Advanced Marathoning - Peter Pfitzinger and Scott Douglas (maybe 4th time?)
  11. The Problem of Pain - CS Lewis
  12. Mere Christianity - CS Lewis (3rd time through)
  13. What Must the Church of Christ Do To Be Saved? - Leroy Garrett
  14. Piloting the Strait - Dave Miller (4th or 5th time through)
  15. Free As Sons - Cecil Hook
  16. Healthy Intelligent Training: The Proven Principles of Arthur Lydiard - Keith Livingstone
  17. How To Win Friends And Influence People - Dale Carnegie (I didn't get all the way through this book this year, but I have read this book every year for several years, except this year.)
  18. Letters From a Skeptic - Dr. Gregory A. Boyd and Edward Boyd
  19. Surprised by Hope - NT Wright (I just started this one, but I will finish it before year's end.)
Letters from a Skeptic: A Son Wrestles with His Father's Questions about Christianity
The best book I read this year is Letters From A Skeptic by Dr. Gregory A. Boyd and Edward Boyd. I would classify that as a "must read". I was both challenged and touched by that book. It's also very readable. Greg Boyd has earned my respect because he is not afraid of any question and he has an honesty that is very refreshing. I don't agree with a lot of his positions (especially his radical pacifism), but I respect him greatly.

What are you reading? What do you recommend for me for next year? Please leave comments with recommendations! Don't assume I've already read it! Strengths from my list.... Contrasting theological views, mostly good books. Weaknesses from my list... No science or technology books, no classic fiction. So, please, help me to improve for next year!

On my list for next year are these. Please add to the list. I'd love to get through 20 books next year.
In addition to those books, I heavily emphasized my Bible Study in the Psalms, Gospels (especially John), and the books of Acts and Romans. I'd like to do more in the Old Testament next year. Also, I read most every article published by Eastside church of Christ in Athens, AL (private email list) and Pepper Road church of Christ (on their website) in Athens, AL. I also followed Patrick Mead's tentpegs blog and Greg Boyd's Reknew.org blog and recently added Rachel Held Evans instead of Al Maxey's Reflections (I just found Maxey's tone too vitriolic for my taste at times).

That's about all I have time for.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

All or None

I ran across a well done piece by Rachel Held Evans a couple of days ago. She talks about 5 things you don't have to leave behind when you leave fundamentalism. It deals with some difficulties that someone may have breaking away from fundamentalism.

Sometimes, "fundamentalist" can be a pejorative term. I don't believe Ms. Evans uses "fundamentalist" this way, and I certainly am not using it in a negative way here. I am using the term to describe a strict, exclusive, uncompromising, conservative approach to interpreting the Bible. Though my religious background is fundamentalist, I no longer believe that a fundamentalist approach to interpreting the Bible is best. I have found the consequences to this change in approach very difficult. This is why I found Ms. Evans' post interesting.

And to be sure, I'm not physically "breaking away" from anything. I'm not leaving or even contemplating leaving church. I think that will be obvious as you read this. I'm describing a mindset change that I believe allows me to have a better understanding of Scripture and a stronger faith.

With this change in approach have come disagreements. When I have discussed these disagreements with people who take a fundamentalist approach, the most common response is to jump to the conclusion that I do not (or soon will not) believe in God or the Bible. This response has been nearly ubiquitous. For example,  I have shared with a few people that I do not believe the Bible is a rule book, instruction manual, or blueprint. Here are some responses I've gotten when I've revealed this change in approach to the Bible...
  • If you approach the Bible this way, you will eventually believe that it has no authority. You will even reject direct commandments.
  • You must not believe that the Bible is inspired.
  • Do you now believe that any religion is ok? Muslims, Hindus, and even atheists?
  • Do you no longer think that homosexuality sinful?
  • You just want the Bible to say whatever you want it to say. Do you even believe in God anymore?
This is just a sample of the radical responses that I have gotten. I'm baffled. I've often asked myself, "Why would they think this about me?" I really don't know the answer to that question, but I believe it's related to an "all or none" mindset (Either you agree with all of what we teach or you agree with none of what we teach; you are either right or wrong.) that I am sometimes still guilty of.
To be fair to those who have reacted this way, many people do leave fundamentalism and go to an extreme counter position of atheism or agnosticism or some self-destructive pattern of behavior (addiction, idolization of pleasure, etc.). So, their concern for me is not altogether irrational and I appreciate it, even if it hurts at times. Without the community of God helping me out, who knows whether I would have run to one of those other extremes.

Some people seem to be concerned that I don't believe in Jesus or the Bible any more, that I don't believe in church any more, that I don't believe in restraint any more. To clear the air, using Rachel's excellent post as a guide, here are my thoughts on her 5 things that I haven't left behind.
  1. I believe the Bible is inspired by God. Just because I don't believe it's a technical "how-to" document doesn't mean that I disregard it or reject it. I study it harder now than I ever have in my life. I find myself engrossed in its stories. I see God's love on every page. I now take the whole thing and not just the few proof texts that I had memorized. I still have those proof texts stored away in my heart, but I read them afresh and in their context and through the lens of Jesus crucified. Some things I understand better than ever and other things I'm more confused about than ever. Sometimes it makes me joyful and sometimes it comforts me and sometimes it makes me afraid and sometimes it frustrates me and sometimes it makes me angry. But it always fills me with awe. I'm challenged every time I open my Bible app or leather bound book. I love reading the Bible because it teaches me about God.
  2. I believe that the church reveals God's wisdom. I don't believe that worship begins and ends when the church is assembled and dismissed. I don't believe that there is a specific order of events or a specific set of acts that must be performed as part of worship. And sometimes, I admit, I'd rather stay in bed. But I believe it is necessary for my spiritual survival to join and work with God's community. I don't agree with every doctrinal position taught at church. I don't like every sermon or Bible class. I'm not a member of a perfect church, but I'm a member of a good church. There are people there (myself included) who are suffering and some of that suffering is self-induced. And we need one another to show compassion and love. And I love every single person there. I fit right in with my own brokenness and weaknesses. We are all working together with God toward fixing and strengthening one another. I love my church (I consider them my family.) and can't fathom leaving them. I need them.
  3. (I'm combining Rachel's 3 and 5 into one point here.) I believe that God calls us to be disciplined and holy. I strive to pray, study, and sacrifice more. I strive to avoid profane and filthy things and live a life that is moral and holy. There are restrictions on our behavior and there are things that we must actively do. What I've found, though, is that the specific rules that we've made don't truly make us holy or moral. Rather, they serve to give us man-made standards that we can use to judge the discipline and holiness of other Christians. I don't consider myself a better Christian than any other Christian. And I don't want any part of that type of thinking any more. I want to pursue these things from love rather than from fear and guilt.
  4. I have lost friendships over these disagreements. I miss the friends that I have lost and long for their approval again, but I'm not sure their approval is possible unless I return to a fundamentalist mindset. I don't believe that would be true to myself or to true to God. Other friendships have been changed. I have many friends with whom I disagree and I strive to maintain those friendships. I don't want agreement on biblical issues to be a condition for friendship. It's good for me to learn to exercise the patience and kindness and discernment that I believe is necessary to preserve friendships in the presence of disagreements. Ms. Evans speaks truth. If you abandon the fundamentalist mindset, you will lose some friendships and other friendships will change. I've found this to be the hardest part, but as she says, I don't want to leave the friendships behind.
I pray that I cling to and pursue Scripture, community, discipline, friendships and holiness, more like Him.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Worst Sin

In my last post, I wrote about "deal breaker sins" and the story of David and Bathsheba. That post is background for this one. The summary of that post is this: There are sins, whether we like to admit it or not, that we consider "deal breakers", sins like homosexuality, adultery, murder, illegal drug use, abortion, etc. But... If I have the same evil desires that David (or anyone guilty of a deal breaker) has, then why do I think my sins are not as bad as his? Can we classify sin at all? If we can classify sin, what is the worst sin of all?

I've heard and I've believed and taught that all sin is sin is equal. When I believed that, instinctively and intuitively, it just didn't seem right. Also, the fact that most consider "deal breakers" to be really bad indicates that this belief isn't really easy to accept. I know that my instincts and intuition and behavior are not standards for truth. However, when something clearly violates these, it does give me reason to pause, consider, and re-examine. I've discovered that sins are not equal. It's obvious to most anyone that all sins are not equal in terms of consequences and in terms of their effect on other people. So, I won't deal with those two senses of inequality in this post. This post will focus on what the Bible says and what Jesus taught about the inequality of sins.

So what does the Bible say? Are some sins worse than others? Let's begin by establishing that Jesus does, at least once, point out that not all sins are equal. Pilate had freed a guilty murdering, thieving rebel named Barabbas (Mark 15:7; John 18:40) . Then, he brutally beat an innocent Man nearly to death (John 19:1). After this, Pilate is demanding an answer from this bloody, bruised, humiliated, dying Man and threatens Him with his power. Jesus replies, "You could have no power at all against Me unless it had been given you from above. Therefore the one who delivered Me to you has the greater sin." (John 19:11)

From this passage, it seems reasonable to conclude that not all sins are equal. Judas (or Caiaphas, not sure which is being referred to here) had a greater sin than Pilate. If the sin of handing Jesus over was greater than Pilate's abuse of power, cowardice, brutal beating, and murder, then the sins that are most repulsive to me may not be the greatest sins.

When you couple this statement of Jesus with His statements that it will be more tolerable for Tyre, Sidon, and Sodom in the judgment than it would be for Bethsaida, Chorazin, and Capernaum (Matt. 11:21-24), it seems that even the punishment for some sins is more severe. Seem impossible? Then what is the point of Hebrews 10:29? Some sins deserve and will receive a more severe punishment. Consider also Lamentations 4:6. Some translations say "the punishment for the iniquity of ... my people ... is greater than the punishment of Sodom". Others say "the iniquity of ... my people ... is greater than the sin of Sodom". I can't make sense of all of these verses without concluding that some sins are greater than others.

Having looked at some passages that deal directly with this, let's now approach this logically. A few months ago, I wrote about weightier matters of the law. Logically, if some parts of the law are weightier than other parts of the law (Matthew 23:23), does it not follow that violating the weightier commandments is worse than violating the ones that are less weighty? Please don't misunderstand. I'm not suggesting that we can ignore the less weighty matters. I'm not suggesting that any sin is "not so bad". Just as all of God's word is pure and right, all sin is corrupt and wrong and evil. But, just as not all of Scripture is equal, not all sins are equal. I think I've more or less known deep down all along that they're not equal, but I've classified them all wrong. What are really the greater sins?

What are the weightier matters according to Matthew 23:23? Faith, justice, and mercy. What do those have in common? They are heart based virtues. They are qualities that are cultivated inwardly and are not easily observable or measurable. What are the two greatest commandments? Love God and love your fellow man. If these are the greatest commandments and sin is disobedience, then does it not follow that the greatest sins are to disobey these greatest commandments? To lack love, faith, mercy, and justice?

Following Christ is a matter of the heart. This is the essence of "I desire mercy and not sacrifice." Following Christ isn't about prettying up the outside. It isn't about just avoiding the deal breakers. It isn't about obeying laws for the sake of obeying laws. It's about cultivating virtues in your heart. It's about allowing Christ to dwell in you and take away your evil, selfish desires and to replace them with perfect graceful character traits. It's about cultivating those virtues to maturity. It seems to me that this is the point Jesus is making in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:21-48. Rather than simply avoiding murder, you should avoid anger and keep vengeance out of your heart. Rather than simply avoiding fornication, you should remove lust from your heart. Rather than loving only your neighbors, love everyone, including your enemies. Following Christ is a radical inward change.

Still in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus uses hyperbole to show that some sins are greater. In Matthew 7:1-5, He talks about a splinter and a beam. If I'm right about what I've written in these two posts, then this would imply that correcting others faults in a merciless, unjust, unloving way is exactly what Jesus was talking about here. Having evil desires, lust, pride, laziness, injustice, being unloving, being unkind, being unmerciful, those are beams. I admittedly have beams in my eye. When I'm perfect in my faith, mercy, justice, and love, when I have conquered laziness, lust, and pride, then I'll feel like I'm qualified to judge others. Until then, I'll follow Jesus instruction to "Judge not." Right now, I'm too busy working with Christ to remove my beams to be picking at splinters in others' eyes. God alone is judge.

I have seen and participated in my share of unloving judgment and condemnation of others. If the greatest commandment is to love, then it follows that the worst sin is to withhold love. Who is the worse sinner, the murderer, homosexual, adulterer, addict, etc. or the one who hates the murderer, homosexual, adulterer, addict, etc.? When I shun and avoid and berate and gossip about and slander those who are struggling with sin, when I fail to show them the love of Christ (Christ who loves me and reaches out to me while I am a sinner), I am guilty of the worst sin, even worse than the deal breakers.

To be clear, if you interpret these posts to mean that I believe that murder, homosexuality, adultery, etc. are NOT sinful or are not so bad, then I have failed miserably to communicate my message. Those are sins. Period. However, withholding love is a greater sin than any of those. I pray that I will learn to show love to the guilty, more like Him.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Deal Breaker Sins

If you think for a moment, you probably can come up with a list of what many consider, but nobody calls, "deal breaker" sins. Your list is probably similar to my list. Deal breakers are the sins that one absolutely must avoid to be accepted by most Christians. Here's my partial list: homosexuality, adultery, murder, abortion, illegal drug use, etc. Congratulations to me. I'm avoiding the deal breakers.

To be sure, I've always heard and even repeated that a sin is a sin is a sin, but I have been guilty of practically categorizing sins while claiming to believe that they are equal. Oh, I'd never admit it, but I sure categorized them in my mind something like this... The deal breakers are really bad. The ones I'm guilty of are not so bad; they're just weaknesses. (I now believe and admit to believing that sins have different weights. More on this later.) I certainly want to press for the ideal of having no sins, but I am weak and stubborn and proud and end up sinning again and again. Somehow, though, I'm avoiding the deal breakers. I need desperately to realize that I'm avoiding these deal breakers by God's grace, not by myself.

I've never said this out loud, but if I'm honest with myself, I've thought it. Avoiding those deal breakers must make me a better person than someone who commits the deal breakers, right? Again, I never would have said or written that. Has it ever crossed your mind that you're a better person than a homosexual or a better person than a drug addict? And, a murderer? Surely I'm a better person than a murderer, right?  Am I the only one who has thought with hubris and righteous indignation when I hear that a man has cheated on his wife, "How could he do something like that?"

Then, it hit me square in the nose and I said it out loud to my wife, "I'm not a better person than David." David committed two of the deal breakers on my list. Please read 2 Samuel 11. How did David, such a good man and king, such a talented musician, such a respectful servant to King Saul, such a valiant warrior, such a great poet, such a faithful young man, such a loyal friend to Jonathan... How did David, a man with so many virtues, fall to the point of committing these deal breakers?

When I look carefully at this story and carefully at myself, I realize that I'm not above committing a deal breaker. I have the same evil desires in me that David had in him that led to his great fall. Look briefly at what led to David's fall.
  1. Laziness. Why did David stay in Jerusalem while Joab and his army went to fight? (2 Sam. 11:1) Perhaps I'm reading too much into this next verse, but why is David just getting out of bed in the evening? (2 Sam. 11:2) Has he been in bed all day or was he taking a nap?
  2. Lust. David, it seems, was walking about looking for something to fill his idle time when he saw Bathsheba. I don't see anything in the text that indicts or exonerates Bathsheba. Her role could have been anywhere from seductress to rape victim. The text does not say. The Bible presents this as David's sin, so let's focus on that. David inquired, sent for her, and took her (2 Sam. 11:3-4). He indulged his desire.
  3. Pride. Most of 2 Samuel 11 is telling of David trying to cover up his sin. David will stop at nothing to preserve his righteous appearance. He misrepresents the reason for Uriah's visit. (To report about the war?) He gets Uriah drunk. Then, he murders Uriah. This dishonesty, drunkenness, and murder were all attempts to cover up his sin, to avoid shame.
I confess that I have not yet conquered laziness, lust, and pride. In fact, I struggle with each of those most every day, among several other evil desires. The difference between me and David (or me and any adulterer or murderer) is that my evil desires manifest themselves in other ways that aren't deal breakers.

I'm tempted by laziness every day. Sometimes I'm distracted at work. Sometimes I look for shortcuts or plagiarize. I sometimes neglect to help those in need because it requires work. I indulge in too much TV. I sit idly far too often. I even seek idle time. Choosing idle time over productive time was the beginning of David's fall. 

We live in a sex-obsessed society that glorifies lust. We don't have to look for things to incite these desires; they find us. We will confront strong desires for the forbidden, and this isn't limited only to sexual desires. It happens to everyone. The desire for the forbidden is one of our enemy's strongest and oldest weapons (Genesis 3:6). It seems very dangerous to me to think that I have it conquered or that I can legislate away a desire for the forbidden. Most every day I notice things that are desirable, but that I shouldn't have. And those desires are both dangerous and strong. David was enticed by the forbidden, even though (or maybe exactly because) he knew it was forbidden.

Over and over I struggle with pride. Even my near automatic categorization of others' sins is ugly pride. My sins are weaknesses. Others' sins are deal breakers. How often do I paint myself white after a mistake? How often do I say something hurtful and then try to soften it by saying "I didn't mean it that way?" How often do I avoid apologizing? I want people to like me and think I'm good, and sometimes, my desire to make myself look good ends up in harm to someone else. David was willing to harm and even kill Uriah to avoid looking bad.

I hope my description of my own struggles with the same evil desires David had was foreign to every reader, but I suspect it was not. I have every one of those evil desires that David had, and I believe that David was a better man than I am. So why are my sins not as bad as his? The key difference between me and David is that my desires aren't manifesting themselves in the form of deal breakers. So, that brings me to the questions I want to ask. Are my sins really not that bad? Are others' sins really worse than mine? Can sins be categorized? If so, what is the worst sin?

Stay tuned. I'll look more into those questions in the next post.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

My God Isn't Like That

These thoughts have been rolling in my head in some form for quite some time. And I'm honestly a little afraid to post this because it brings up some ugly truths. But a friend of mine posted on Facebook about fear recently, quoting 2 Timothy 1:7. Now, I'm not sure that this kind of thing is exactly what Paul was talking about when he wrote those words to Timothy. I think Paul was more saying, "Never be afraid or ashamed to tell the death and resurrection story of Jesus. Never be afraid of what men may do to you for showing them the grace of God."

On second thought, maybe Paul's words do apply a little, because I want to relate a conversation that I heard recently to the grace of God and the death and resurrection story. It involves some tough questions that I don't know how to answer and that may make some people (myself included) uncomfortable or even angry to consider. But I'll try not to be afraid.

Recently, I was talking to a couple of other Christians about the story of the Taliban shooting a 14 year old Pakistani girl in the head. You can google the story, but here's at least one article about it. Thankfully, she is progressing and has the potential to make a full recovery. Obviously, we were horrified, disgusted, even outraged. What a senseless, merciless, disgusting, cowardly, evil act done in the name of God. One of the Christians said, "They say that we serve the same God, but the God I serve doesn't ask someone to do something like that, to try to kill a defenseless girl. Their god is not like my God." A response to that statement was to consider Deuteronomy 2:33-34, 20:10-20; and 1 Samuel 15:1-3. We all were quick to acknowledge that Christians have some explaining to do. Both of them had thought this through more thoroughly than I have. They shed some light on the subject for me.

And, this conversation reminded me: Let's not be so quick to condemn another's religion because we don't like what some of its adherents say their god says. Do we Christians want to be judged by that same standard? I don't want people judging me because of the crusades or Charlie Fuqua or Westboro Baptist or the International churches of Christ. When talking to a Muslim, let's not typecast that person as a member of the Taliban.

And let's be honest about our own religion. In our Holy Book, on more than one occasion, Hebrew people attribute to God the commandment to slaughter women (I assume even pregnant women) and children, even babies and toddlers. Let's not pretend that Christianity doesn't have difficult questions. History, not the Bible, but secular history, tells us of people committing genocide in the name of Christianity during the crusades. Let's not pretend that we're such a holy religion because our religion, and its predecessor, Judaism, has always been sweet and non-violent. History and even our inspired Holy Bible tell a different story. What good do we do to ridicule or dismiss someone's belief system? Sure, disgust is the proper response to the actions of the Taliban and Westboro Baptist. However, we shouldn't think all Muslims are terrorists any more than we should think that all Christians are like the protesters from Westboro.

Also, we may ridicule mythology or paganism because we consider their stories ridiculous or fantastic, yet shortly after our Holy Story begins, we have a woman talking to a snake. A few chapters later, we have God commanding a human sacrifice and then reneging on the command. The same author tells us later that a donkey talked to a man. The Bible tells of the sun standing still, a floating ax head, leprosy being given and cured by the same person, water turning to wine, and people raising from the dead. Call me primitive or silly, but I believe all of that happened.

We may ridicule radical Islam as a violent religion (and it is) or liberal environmentalists for elevating plant life and devaluing human life (and they do). But our Holy Bible tells of a people who, at the commandment of God, raided a land, killed the men, women, and children but spared the trees. As a Christian, I don't do anyone (myself included) any favors to ridicule others while pretending that I don't have difficult questions to answer. I do. And ridiculing and judging other religions (or even other Christian groups) is not the right way to proceed.

I believe all of the following things.
  1. Jesus is raised and is God's only Son and He is the exact representation of God's essence. 
  2. The Holy Bible is inspired by God. 
  3. God cannot do or command evil.
  4. It is evil to kill innocent men, women, children, and babies.
I don't know all the answers or reconciliations for those seemingly contradictory beliefs, but I do have rational reasons for believing each of those things based on tons of reliable evidence. I have a few answers that work for me. I'll leave the public discussion of the reconciliation of those beliefs to those who are much better at apologetics than I am. However, I do think about how to solve the problems that the Bible presents to us. I do myself no favor to ignore something in the Bible because it's not what I expect. I encourage all Christians to consider all of what the Bible says. Ask tough questions. Think. Be honest. Be ready to answer, both for yourself and if asked. Believe for more reasons than because you were raised in a Christian culture. Is being a Christian right even though it has some difficulties? You need to know the answer to that question and you need to know how to reconcile the difficulties.

When I talk to a Hindu or a Muslim or a pagan or an atheist or an agnostic, I don't think I should start with an attack on their religion or lack of religion, which would likely lead to a counter attack and a requirement to reconcile these things and get into questions that are difficult to answer and may end in fruitless disputes. Christianity is not a bloodless religion that has simple answers to life's tough questions and is condescending to all other people. I won't win people to Christ by treating Christianity that way. There is one huge thing that makes Christianity different. We have a Savior who really lived and died and raised from the dead. We can confirm that fact with history.

When talking to those who are not Christians, I should start with a story. It's a story confirmed by history and archaeology and other reliable sources, including written eyewitness testimony, changed lives, and the Bible. It's a story of a Man who showed pure, sacrificial love in every aspect of His life and death. A story of a Man full of grace. A story of forgiveness both for and by those who follow this Man. A story of a Man who begged for His enemies' forgiveness while they tortured Him to death. A story of a Man who raised from the dead and lives and promised that all who follow Him will also raise from the grave and live. That story is what makes being a Christian special and holy. Muslims, Hindus, atheists, and even Christians need to hear that story and see that grace in me and in you. Christianity isn't a religion about finding every answer and attaining perfect knowledge and understanding and the self-righteousness that would inevitably follow. Christianity is a relationship with a risen Savior and service to others.

I'm impressed with Paul in Acts 23 through Acts 27. Over and over, he showed grace and he respectfully told the resurrection story. He talked about resurrection. A lot. Paul's message in those chapters was basically, "Jesus rose from the dead. He made a radical difference in my life. He'll make a radical difference in your life, too."

That's the Gospel story. And I pray that I can respectfully share it with as many people as possible so that we all can be made more like Him, including the resurrection He promised.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Principles and Rules

Rules can be easy to follow. Principles can be difficult to apply. About the New Testament I've asked myself, "Is it a collection of rules or a collection of literature that contains principles?" By and large, it seems that the latter is true. Consider the literature types in the New Testament. There are four biographies of Jesus, one book of the history of the early community of believers, a collection of letters (some addressed to collective groups of Christians and others addressed to individuals), and a book of prophecy. None of those are technical how-to books or legal documents. Given the type of literature God inspired and preserved for us, it seems more reasonable to conclude that He gave us principles to show us what is good rather than a set of arbitrary rules.

Sometimes, situations arise where the right thing to do is not crystal clear. Sometimes there are rules that come into conflict for a variety of reasons, whether it be timing, an emergency, historical and cultural context, or some other chance occurrence. Jesus deals with a situation like this with the Old Testament law in John 7, especially verses 16-24. The Law of Moses commanded circumcision on the 8th day for male children. The Law of Moses also commanded rest on the Sabbath. So, what do we do with a male child who turns 8 days old on the Sabbath? It's not crystal clear. Jewish rabbis and Jewish tradition held that you were to circumcise a child on the Sabbath if he were 8 days old that day. Jesus seems to approve of this interpretation. (Maybe not, it's hard for me to tell from John 7. He doesn't seem to condemn this interpretation, at least.) In showing that His healing on the Sabbath did not violate the law, He points to this accepted interpretation of the law of Moses. Then, He says to the Jews in verse 24, "Judge not according to appearance, but judge righteous judgment."

It seems that Jesus is saying here, "Don't judge so quickly. Dig a little deeper. Consider the overall teaching of God's word and the whole situation and then decide what is right." In healing, Jesus was showing mercy and love, great principles that outweigh the command to rest on the Sabbath. (See also Matthew 12:1-14.) The Jews' judgment of Him wasn't based on righteousness and the principles of God's word. It was rooted in their desire to condemn and kill Jesus (John 7:1, 19).

What's our lesson from this? I've used, and heard others use, John 7:24 as a justification for condemning people who disagree with me. However, it seems that is the opposite of what Jesus was actually saying. Jesus isn't giving the Pharisees license to condemn others. Rather, He is teaching them to refrain from condemning others and to be innocent and holy in their discernment. The Pharisees' problem was their desire to condemn and kill Jesus. That's why they judged Him. They were looking for any misstep. Any excuse would do. When I used John 7:24 to justify condemning others, I didn't realize that Jesus was actually correcting the Pharisees for their desire to condemn Him.

You see, the problem here was the Pharisees' desire to condemn. They were not acting from love, the greatest principle in the law. While they likely believed they were doing God's work, they hated Jesus. In their zeal to condemn those who disagreed with their rules, they incorrectly condemned Jesus under the guise of protecting and upholding rules, rules that they believed were from God. However, in their protecting of these rules, they had neglected the principles of God's word.

A passage that comes to mind here is Galatians 5:22-23. "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance: against such there is no law." Remember, it is never wrong to love, to seek peace, to be patient, etc. There is no law that can stand against these great principles in God's word. In this same chapter, verse 14, Paul says that the entire law is fulfilled in love. Love selflessly and you will not break any of God's rules. Seek to condemn, as the Pharisees did, and you are likely to misapply God's word.

I pray that I can do everything from love, more like Him.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Overemphasizing Love

I've heard it said that some people "overemphasize love". So, I asked myself the question, "Is it possible to overemphasize love?" I suppose it depends on what is meant by that. It is possible to distort any message by omitting some topic that is part of the message. So, if what is meant by that is "You omit the fear of judgment," or "You omit obedience," then there could be some validity to the suggestion that the message of Christ is being distorted. However, the criticism should be stated more specifically to be useful. It seems to me that saying that one is "overemphasizing love" indicates either a misunderstanding of love or a misunderstanding of the message of Christ.

I think that it is impossible to overemphasize love when talking about the teachings of Christ. I have stated here and elsewhere that love is at the center of all of God's communication with us. I sincerely believe that. Love is not just the most important principle in God's word, it is the whole of God's word. Love is the essence of who God is.

In thinking about this, I did a quick look through the New Testament and I realized that I have not begun to understand love's importance. To think that someone is overemphasizing love is either to misunderstand love or to misunderstand the Bible. Consider the following passages with me.

Mat 22:37-40  And he said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.  (38)  This is the great and first commandment.  (39)  And a second like unto it is this, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.  (40)  On these two commandments the whole law hangeth, and the prophets.

Rom 13:8-10  Owe no man anything, save to love one another: for he that loveth his neighbor hath fulfilled the law.  (9)  For this, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not covet, and if there be any other commandment, it is summed up in this word, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.  (10)  Love worketh no ill to his neighbor: love therefore is the fulfilment of the law.

Gal 5:14  For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, even in this: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.

Jas 2:8  Howbeit if ye fulfil the royal law, according to the scripture, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself, ye do well:

1Jn 4:7-11  Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loveth is begotten of God, and knoweth God.  (8)  He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love.  (9)  Herein was the love of God manifested in us, that God hath sent his only begotten Son into the world that we might live through him.  (10)  Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.  (11)  Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.

1Jn 4:20-21  If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, cannot love God whom he hath not seen.  (21)  And this commandment have we from him, that he who loveth God love his brother also.

And, perhaps the most famous of all passages about love is 1 Corinthians 13, the love chapter. Paul uses hyperbole to state the importance of love. Tongues of angels, perfect knowledge, faith to move mountains, and extreme generosity and altruism are nothing without love. Love is greater than any virtue, including faith and hope. How could Paul have placed any more emphasis on love than he did in this chapter? Did he overemphasize love?

And this is only a beginning. There are many more passages that say essentially the same thing. I could easily list 10 more verses. All of God's communication with us is centered around love. Love is such a radical virtue that I don't begin to understand. I struggle with the commandment to love my brethren (let alone my enemies) while Jesus said on the cross about those responsible for torturing him to death, "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do."

So, I don't think it's possible to overemphasize love. God is love. He loves even His enemies.

And He commands us to love our enemies. Who is my enemy? Is it someone who disagrees with me doctrinally? Is it someone who has slandered me? Is it an addict? Is it a homosexual? Is it an atheist? Is it someone who disagrees with me politically? Who is it that I believe is my enemy? I need to seek them out and actively love them. I need to seek those who cannot possibly return my service to them and serve them, expecting nothing in return. Love and serve sacrificially. When they treat me harshly and do not appreciate what I am doing for them, I need to continue loving them. Continue serving them. When they hurt and betray me, I should pray for their forgiveness. I need to show this love while they are still my enemy. That is the love of Jesus.

And the goal of God's love is to improve us. Likewise the goal of our love to our enemies is to help them. And He helped us by doing for us what we could not do. He loved us first. He showed us sacrificial, unselfish, generous, benevolent love. He sacrificed for and served us first. Likewise, for our enemies,we are to love them first with true, sacrificial love that seeks their best interest, that seeks to lead them to Christ for their own good. Love that only rebukes and chastens without serving and sacrificing is not love at all.

And in addition to loving our enemies, Christians should love one another in an extreme way. Jesus said in John 13:35, "By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another." How are Christians known by all men? Is it "They are the ones who hate homosexuals"? Or is it "They are the ones who hate President Obama?" Or is it "They are the ones who think they're the only ones"? Or  is it "They are the ones who talk about hell all the time"? Or is it "They are the ones who reject evolution"? Or is it, "They are the ones who eat Chick-Fil-A"? If we, as Christians, are primarily known as anything other than, "They are the ones who love one another the way that Jesus loves them," then we don't love enough. We need to love more and more.

And since I mentioned Chick-Fil-A, I'll digress for a moment. The Chick-Fil-A in my town has been great for the community. They have donated money to worthy charities to support awareness for and research into serious diseases such as Meningitis. They have been active in raising awareness and funds for adoption of underprivileged children. They donated much food, water, and labor when a natural disaster struck our community. They close on Sundays in support of balance in their employees lives. Mr. Cathy has now stated clearly when asked his unsurprising beliefs about marriage. (I regret that the single latter action has gotten so much more attention than the multiple former ones.) I support all of that and I support them for those reasons more than because I like their chicken and milkshakes.

The first step for me to realizing how much I have to grow in love was to realize that I don't love like God loves. God loves perfectly and unconditionally. I attach strings and love selfishly. I pray that He will teach me to love my brethren and my enemies, more like Him.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

What Did God Say?

One time I was teaching a Bible class to junior high students. It was a very good class of good hearted 6th through 8th graders. I would have been proud to have called any one of those students my own son or daughter. They were lovely young men and women.

During one of the classes, we were studying the Genesis account of Adam and Eve in the garden and the sin of the eating of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. You can read about this story in Genesis 2:15-3:19. It is a well known story and it includes a very interesting dialog between the serpent (whom many, myself included, believe to be Satan) and Eve. Let's look at that dialog and talk about an observation that 6th - 8th graders made about that story.

I posed the question to the class, "What did the serpent say that God said?" The good students referred to Genesis 3:1 and said, "You shall not eat of every tree of the garden." Then, I asked, "Is that really what God said?" They answered, "No." Easy question. Of course Satan did not accurately represent God. He is the father of lies.

Next, I asked, "What did Eve say that God said?" Again, they referred to Genesis 3, this time verses 2-3, and said, "You shall not eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and you shall not even touch it, lest you die." Very good. Then, I repeated the question, "Is that really what God said?" Much more quickly than I expected, they said, "NO!" Then, they referred me to Genesis 2:16-17 to see what God really said. God's commandment was simple. They were allowed to eat of every tree in the garden except for the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Eating of that tree would cause death.

Neither the serpent nor Eve accurately restated the commandment from God. The serpent seemed to be persuading Eve that God was holding back something that would be good for her. It's a similar lie that Satan tells us today. "God really wants to hold you back. You could be so much better without His commandments. God doesn't really want what's best for you. He only wants what's best for Him and to keep you from being as good as you could be." What a lie! God's commandments are for our good always! Any doubt about that fact comes from our own lusts or from the adversary.

Eve seemed to think that God's commandment wasn't restrictive enough, so she added the restriction "neither shall you touch it."

Sometimes, when faced with temptation, I have done exactly what Eve did. I have added restrictions that God did not add. If I want to impose those restrictions on myself, that is fine. Eve would not have sinned if she had never touched the tree. However, God hadn't forbidden her from touching it. She was condemned for eating, not for touching. One of the students in that class made this observation. "God's commandment was better than what Eve said because they could have cut that tree down and burned it or buried it so that they wouldn't have been tempted to eat its fruit. God didn't say, 'Don't touch it.'" I had never thought of that! I'm not sure whether cutting down the tree would have been acceptable to God or not, but I do know this: there were two strong points of truth in the student's observation.

  1. The student's genuine wish was that sin had never entered the world. He/she wanted badly for things to have happened differently in the Garden of Eden. I admired that and commended that!
  2. God's commandment was better than what Eve said. AMEN!
How many times have I done what Eve did? How many times have I made my own restrictions or followed my traditions, and then tried to enforce those traditions and restrictions on others as if they were God's commandment? We need wisdom and humility to avoid elevating our traditions and restrictions to the level of God's commandments.

A final question about this story... What good did Eve's additional restriction do her? NONE! We can't legislate away temptation. We can set wise boundaries, for sure. I have several of those boundaries for myself. But the boundaries I set for myself may not be the boundaries that others have set. I must be careful not to condemn others if their boundaries are not  the same as mine. As evidenced by the young student's comment on cutting down the tree, others may have an equal or greater hatred for sin that allowed them not to set the same boundary that I set. I need not legislate where God has not. 

The way to avoid sin is to set one's heart on good, to truly love what is good and hate what is evil. Legislating restrictions that God did not legislate has not proven to be very helpful in the effort to avoid sin. It's futile to attempt to win an internal battle with an external rule. The ultimate determination of what is right and wrong is, "What did God say?"

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Moses At The Bush

In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the Bible records for us a fascinating dialog between Jesus and the Sadducees, specifically regarding the resurrection. Please read these accounts in Matthew 22:23-33, Mark 12:18-27, and Luke 20:27-39

The Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection. They had what they thought was a rock solid argument in favor of their position, proving in their minds that the notion of a resurrection couldn't possibly be consistent with Scripture. But they had misapplied Scripture as Jesus would show. Their argument went like this:
  1. The law of Moses mandated levirate marriage (Deut. 25:5-10) to preserve a man's name. 
  2. Suppose there were seven brothers who died without children after being married to the same woman. (This was not an unreasonable or impossible scenario. Uncommon, but not unreasonable.)
  3. Which of the seven brothers would have her as wife in the resurrection?  If the resurrection is true, in their reasoning, it is inconsistent with the law of Moses.They thought there was no answer to this question.
Jesus' answer to this question is simply amazing. First, He deals with their hypothetical question, showing that it is an invalid question to begin with. There are no marriages in the resurrection (Matt. 22:30), so the question of whose wife she will be in the resurrection is nonsense! Second, He very sharply rebukes their disbelief in the resurrection. He tells them that they should have known from reading the passage about Moses at the burning bush that there is a resurrection (Mark 12:26-27).

That last part of this story is what I want to look at closely. In the past I have argued that Jesus based His entire argument on the tense of one verb in one verse when He quoted Exodus 3:6 and said, "I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob."  Did Jesus actually base His entire argument on the tense of that one word?  I would like to suggest that there was much more going on in this application of this burning bush passage than the tense of one verb. I don't believe Jesus was teaching us to build arguments about critical Bible principles based on small details in the text.

If that's not what Jesus was teaching, then what was He teaching? We do learn a hermeneutic lesson from this story. It's just not the hermeneutic lesson that I've been teaching. Jesus' argument for the resurrection did NOT rest solely on the tense of one verb in the Septuagint translation of Exodus 3:6. First, Jesus called their attention to Moses at the burning bush, calling to their minds the entire story. That story includes a poignant description of God's name, power, and nature (Ex. 3:14-15). It is the first revelation of God's name (Ex. 6:3) and nature to any man. The tense in this passage is part of the very nature of God, not a small linguistic detail. God is. Period. Second, Jesus expected them to understand that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had died by the time this incident happened. He expected them to have some knowledge of the history taught in the books of Moses. Also, Jesus expected them to understand that God is the God of the living. That's interesting because "the God of the living" isn't something being addressed in the immediate context. "The God of the living" is a large theme throughout the Bible (Gen. 9:16; Psalm 56:13; Isaiah 8:19; etc.). There is so much more going on here than just the tense of one word in one verse. Yes, the tense of that word is important, but there is so much more in the context to indicate the tense than just that one word in one verse.

To argue that Jesus main argument rests on the tense of one word in one verse, as I have done repeatedly in the past, is borderline absurd. It's more unreasonable when I consider that in Luke's account (Luke 20:37), He doesn't even quote the verb! Then, when I consider that the verb is present tense in the story, but it's being used to prove a future event (the resurrection), it's clear that the tense of one verb is not the most important thing going on.

So, here are a couple of closing observations on this passage.

  1. Jesus expected the Sadducees to have deduced from the story about Moses at the burning bush that the resurrection of the dead is a fact. They had not read this story correctly. They had not handled the Scripture accurately (2 Tim. 2:15).
  2. Their rejection of the resurrection of the dead was an insult to the power of God, and that power was on display in the story He called to their attention.
So, when we look at the facts, Jesus did NOT base His entire argument on the tense of one word. Far from it. He based His argument on the historical context, the nature and power of God, and the overall teaching of Scripture. That's our hermeneutic lesson from this story. Consider the context, the nature and power of God, and the overall themes of Scripture when interpreting a passage. Jesus did not say, "Exodus 3:6 settles once and for all the question of the resurrection." Don't build a theology using single verses.

I pray that I will learn to properly interpret the Scripture, more like Him.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

An Austere God?

I was reading the parable of the minas just the other day, and a new thought came to me. Before getting started, I recommend that you read the parable of the minas in Luke 19:11-27. It seems to me that this parable has a very similar meaning to the more popular parable of the talents told just a few days later in Matthew 25:14-30, with a couple of interesting differences.

If I understand the parable of the minas correctly (and I am wide open for correction on my understanding of this parable), the nobleman is Jesus. The citizens who hate the nobleman are the Jews who oppose Jesus. The servants are disciples of Jesus. The minas represent responsibilities, opportunities, abilities, etc. given to each disciple. The return of the nobleman represents the judgment. The first two servants had done well and were rewarded. The third servant had been lazy and was rebuked and punished. Punishment of this third servant isn't explicitly stated in this parable, but it seems to be implied, especially if I'm right that this return represents the judgment and in light of the similar parable of the talents. None of that was new to me and likely isn't new to you. I've taught those lessons before from this parable. I've even gone on to talk about the statement in verse 26 that the one who has will be given and the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. But none of that is what I'm writing about now.

For some reason, I've given this one mina servant very little attention, other than to matter-of-factly point out his wickedness and laziness. But the parable tells us more about him. He was a disciple, but a disciple with a misunderstanding about the nature of Jesus. Notice what he thought of the nobleman in verse 21. "You are an austere (that is rough, severe, harsh) man, you collect what you did not deposit and you reap what you did not sow." If my explanation above is accurate (it may not be), then consider what this means. This one mina disciple thinks that Jesus is a harsh, rough, forbidding God and King. He thinks that Jesus demands the unreasonable. And because of this warped view of Jesus, he does nothing productive. He was given one simple instruction from the nobleman, and his warped view of Jesus prevented him from following that instruction.

What a horrible view of Jesus. Yet, I confess to having been guilty of that. I have approached God as if pleasing Him were beyond my ability. Rather than do business with my mina, I've hidden it away, thinking I was unable to please a harsh Master. I've felt hopeless and that I could never get it all right. Doing nothing seems no worse than doing it wrong, and doing nothing sure is easier. I've even avoided sharing the gospel because I didn't want to share my hopelessness. I am ashamed! I did that to my own destruction (verse 22) and offer no excuses. What a horrible misunderstanding of Jesus! Jesus is not austere. He describes Himself as meek and lowly. God has gone to great lengths to show us how gentle and good He is.

How did I get the impression that God demands more from us than He gives us the ability to do? I think it came from an unbalanced approach to God and His word. I spent too much effort thinking about and teaching about God's judgment and vengeance and did not give enough consideration to His grace and love. I never bothered to understand that even His vengeance grows from His love. I thought that Nadab and Abihu had been slain for a misstep, but had not considered that Ruth was given entrance to the assembly of the Lord against the law (Deut. 23:3) yet was given a place in the lineage of Christ . I imagined God as a strict master who had little or no tolerance. I simply have not properly considered God as revealed in Jesus (Heb. 1:1-3). A view of God that overemphasizes judgment to the point of viewing God as harsh, rough, austere, may cause one to do nothing productive. It is a dangerous view.

Now, to be sure, properly considering God as revealed in Jesus does not ignore the role of God as judge. Verse 27 is one of the most severe statements of Jesus that I know of in the New Testament. Paul reminds us to behold the goodness and severity of God (Rom. 11:22). God's judgment on His enemies is severe. If we ignore it, we do horrible injustice to the parable of the minas. Judgment, and severe judgment, is part of that parable and part of God's love. If we ignore God's judgment we do so to our own peril. God's enemies have no hope, and the only way to be His friend is through a loving, active faith in Jesus.

What I'm striving for, in myself, is balance. It is possible to be unbalanced in either direction. It is possible to overemphasize God's mercy and longsuffering and kindness to our own destruction. The Bible warns against that. It is also possible to overemphasize God's vengeance and severity to our own destruction. I believe this  parable warns against that. If I focus too much on God's vengeance, I will see no hope of salvation. If I focus too much on God's grace, I will see no need for salvation. God help me to understand both His grace and His judgment.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Weightier Matters

This past week, I was considering the topic of "practicing what I preach". I am challenging myself to live a life that is consistent with what I profess and believe. The opposite of this consistency is hypocrisy. So, I asked myself, where is the most severe rebuke of hypocrisy? That led me to Matthew 23. Seven times in this chapter Jesus calls the Pharisees hypocrites. Wow!

So, I began asking myself, what made them hypocrites? I would guess that if you asked the Pharisees, "Is hypocrisy righteous?" or "Are you hypocrites?" they would tell you "No! No!" So, how did they become hypocrites and remain blind to their hypocrisy? What is at the heart of their hypocrisy?

Jesus gives us some keen insight into this question. Notice verse 5 where Jesus says, "...all their works they do to be seen by men..." There are several examples in this chapter of their desire to be honored by people leading directly to their hypocrisy. They liked honorable seats and titles. They liked long pretentious prayers. They liked to convert others to their way of thinking. They liked to find loopholes in the law so they could be innocent of sin on a technicality. They wanted to appear righteous more than they wanted to be righteous.

The verse that has always stood out to me is verse 23, "... hypocrites! You tithe mint, dill, and cumin, but have neglected the weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy and faith..." I have to pause and ask myself, in light of passages like Proverbs 30:5, in what sense is a matter weightier? Isn't all of God's law pure? Yes! So, what's different about justice, mercy, and faith? May I suggest the following.

  1. Tithing is measurable and observable. Justice, mercy, and faith are not measurable, and in the truest sense of the words, not observable. How merciful are you? Can you show me? (Sure, justice, mercy, and faith will produce good works, so you can observe injustice, mercilessness, and unfaithfulness when observing bad  or no works. However, we do not know whether good works are done because of virtue or because one wants to appear virtuous.) I find it much easier to do things that are observable and measurable. And, remember the root of their hypocrisy? They wanted to be seen by men! Observable!
  2. Tithing is concrete. Justice, mercy, and faith are abstract concepts. They are difficult to define. What is justice? Well, it's discerning between true good and true evil and being for good and against evil. It's kinda like that, but that's a weak definition. What is mercy? It's compassion. It's tolerance of a person. It's tenderness. It's pity. Kinda.  What is faith? Belief, but more. Substance and evidence (Heb. 11:1). Kinda. Do you see how it's much easier to define tithing? Tithing means to give 10%. Easy. I don't have to think much about it, or even like doing it. I can just do it. It's a lot like sitting in a pew. At this time and for this long, I'll sit. That's pretty easy.
  3. Tithing is an outward action. Justice, mercy, and faith are principles of the heart. This seems to me to be the most important difference. In what sense, then, are they weightier? If I understand this word "weightier", it may be related to our word "basis". These principles are at the root of our obedience to God. These are virtues that we cultivate in our heart and that demonstrate themselves in our behavior. These are virtues that God shares with us that are the basis of our obedience to Him.
If I understand this passage correctly, the point Jesus is making very emphatically, the way to avoid becoming a hypocrite, is simple. Never place more emphasis on visible good works than on the virtues in the heart that provoke the visible good works.

There is tremendous freedom in not seeking the approval of men, but the approval of God.

Friday, May 4, 2012

My Thoughts Are Not Your Thoughts

You may recognize the title of this post as coming from Isaiah 55:8. I've used this verse a few times when I've run across some difficult text or commandment in the Bible. I've basically used this verse to teach that God says, "You obey Me and like Me whether you understand why or not. You don't have to understand why or like it to obey it." Also, often when I cited Isaiah 55:8, I went on to verse 11 (kinda ignoring verse 10) to be sure we knew that God's word will do what He intends whether we understand or not. Though I never said it quite this way, the not so subtle message that my misuse of this passage sends is that God says, "Because I said so."

I'm sorry that I have used this passage that way. I do not believe that is the intent of Isaiah 55:8 at all. If so, then how do we reconcile that with words from the same author in Isaiah 1:18 where God says, "Come, now, and let us reason together"?

Even a cursory reading of Isaiah 55 shows that God's mercy and love are under consideration in the context. He is more merciful and loving than we are. He will extend His salvation to everyone on the earth. That's what is meant by "My thoughts are not your thoughts and My ways are not your ways." God will show mercy and pardon to all who seek Him. What a beautiful picture is painted of God's word coming to the earth to enrich and nourish His creation! Just as the rain and snow from heaven give life to the earth, God's word gives life to us.

Back to Isaiah 1... The context there is a contrast between God's love and mercy and Israel's abuse and oppression. God says, "Come and reason with me. Be merciful as I am. That is My desire for you." You see, God's desire for us is to reason and learn that He is loving and merciful, more so than we are. Because of that, His ultimate desire for us is that we be more loving and merciful, to be better than we are. And He helps us to accomplish that through the example and the forgiveness that is in Jesus.

God wants us to understand that love is the ultimate good. Love is at the center of all of His communication with us (Matt. 22:36-40). God challenges us to learn that. God does not say, "You just do exactly what I tell you and only what I tell you without thinking about it because you're too simple to understand Me anyway." I've used Isaiah 55:8-11 to say almost that, but God wants much more from us. Blind submission is not even remotely under consideration there.

If I don't understand how a directive from God or an action of God is loving, then I don't understand that directive or action. God help me to understand Him better and be more loving, like Him.