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.