Archive for September, 2013

Indebted to the PoorI started this research project about three weeks ago. At the time I knew that I was delving into a deep subject which would take me quite awhile to process. But I honestly was unprepared for the sheer quantity of biblical material I would be wading through. This blog post serves two purposes: first, to give an update on my progress so far; and second, to explain more fully my motivation to tackle this project.

First, a brief update on my progress: to start I am using BibleWorks to search for English words, such as “poor,” “wealthy,” “rich,” and others. I quickly discovered that there are a lot of verses to study. My goal is to look at all the verses for a given search term and then try to distill a list of principles from them. I will also look at the original languages to see what words are used and what their meaning is.

I began by searching for the word “poor.” This turned up well over 100 verses (close to 200, depending on which version I searched). Not all of these verses relate directly to material wealth, but from my study so far most of them do.

One thing I’ve observed is that when the Bible talks about the poor, it’s almost always in positive terms. Now, I haven’t made it through the entire Bible yet; I’m in the Psalms right now, so I’m probably about halfway through. But I believe it is significant that the vast majority of references I’ve found for the poor are in their favor. The Bible talks about how God works on their behalf and brings about justice for them, how God’s people are supposed to care for them and uplift them, and how those who oppress them are wicked and unjust. There are definitely some implications for us today, but I’ll leave that for after I’ve completed the study.

Now, an explanation about why I undertook this study: As I mentioned in my first installment of this series, I have been increasingly convicted that our view of wealth and poverty is influenced more by our capitalistic, consumerist society than by biblical values. This conviction has grown out of my study of the Bible, Ellen White’s writings, and the writings of other Christian authors. Over time I came to realize that I had glossed over, or even missed completely, certain teachings in the Bible because of cultural influence on my thinking. I also realized I was not alone; many committed Christians struggle with the same problem.

Perhaps the best way to explain my changing views is to quote a few of the passages that shook me out of my cultural comfort zone. First, there are biblical passages like James 5:1-6:

Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter.You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you.

Those verses hit hard. Yet the message is consistent with dozens of other passages where God, through inspired prophets, calls people to task for selfishly hoarding wealth while oppressing the poor. Yet I had somehow missed many of these passages. For instance, I had always thought that ancient Israel was judged by God and taken into captivity because the people were idolaters who worshiped false gods. That is indeed part of the reason, but the Bible actually lists several other specific sins for which the people were judged. The oppression of the poor is one of them. In Ezekiel 16:49, 50 God likens rebellious Israel to Sodom, and He tells us what Sodom was guilty of:

Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen.

Included in that list of offenses is a lack of concern for the poor. In the following verses God actually tells Israel that their depravity has sunk to such depths that in comparison they make the Sodomites look righteous. Considering this, what would God say to us living in 21st century America? We’re the wealthiest nation in the world; how concerned are we for the poor?

Another teaching that convicted me was Jesus’ own words in Matthew 25:31-46, culminating in that famous saying: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” Perhaps even more convicting is the other side of that statement: “Whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” Could it really be that when Jesus judges the earth He will hold us accountable for the kindness we failed to show to those in need?

These thoughts disturbed me deeply. But their impact might have been blunted (indeed, for years it was) were it not for the writings of Ellen White. This is one of the best examples in my personal life of the lesser light of her writings leading me to the greater light of the Bible. For a seminary class assignment, I was reading Welfare Ministry. The first few chapters in that book gripped me so much that it seemed like I was highlighting nearly every other sentence. Here are a couple of the passages I found most impactful:

Those who have acquired riches have acquired them through the exercise of the talents that were given them of God, but these talents for the acquiring of property were given to them that they might relieve those who are in poverty. These gifts were bestowed upon men by Him who maketh His sun to shine and His rain to fall upon the just and the unjust, that by the fruitfulness of the earth men might have abundant supplies for all their need. The fields have been blessed of God, and “of His goodness He hath prepared for the poor.” (p. 15)

If men would do their duty as faithful stewards of their Lord’s goods, there would be no cry for bread, none suffering in destitution, none naked and in want. It is the unfaithfulness of men that brings about the state of suffering in which humanity is plunged. If those whom God has made stewards would but appropriate their Lord’s goods to the object for which He gave to them, this state of suffering would not exist. (p. 17)

Honestly it’s hard to choose just two quotes, but I’ll stop there because I don’t want to lengthen this post with too many quotations, and also because I don’t want to rob you of the experience of reading this book for yourself. If you haven’t already, get Welfare Ministry and read it!

Then very recently, thanks to a sermon by Dwight Nelson, I came across another powerful quote from Ellen White. The sermon was actually preached in 2007, but I didn’t hear it until a couple days ago. You can download the video here. In describing the needs of the poor around us and imploring us to help them, Dwight Nelson quoted two sentences from Thoughts From the Mount of Blessing that absolutely blew my mind:

So also with the gifts and blessings of this life: whatever you may possess above your fellows places you in debt, to that degree, to all who are less favored. Have we wealth, or even the comforts of life, then we are under the most solemn obligation to care for the suffering sick, the widow, and the fatherless exactly as we would desire them to care for us were our condition and theirs to be reversed. (p. 136, emphasis supplied)

Wow! I’m still reeling from that. Anything we have more than our fellow human beings places us in their debt! And notice she says it is our “solemn obligation” to care for those less fortunate than ourselves. It is not optional. If we are to fulfill Jesus’ command to do unto others as we would have them do unto us, then we must help the poor.

After being repeatedly slapped upside the head with passages like this, the truth of the matter is finally beginning to sink into my brain. God has been cutting through layers of culturally comfortable deception and powerfully convicting me that I need to make some changes in my life if I intend to be faithful to His commands. Now, I’ll be among the first to try to excuse myself by arguing that I’m not really wealthy. Let’s face it: no one goes into pastoral ministry in the Adventist church for the fat paycheck. It’s actually easy for me to feel sorry for myself and think that I’m rather poor. Comparatively, I am. But comparatively, I am also quite rich. I certainly enjoy the comforts of life. Regardless of how poor I may feel, I have abundantly more than many people around me. What am I doing to repay my debt to them?

I do not claim to have all the answers on this issue; I’ve only just begun the study. And I do not claim to know what changes you may need to make in your life as you seek to be faithful to God’s commands. I don’t even know exactly what changes I need to make yet. I hope that something I’ve shared here will motivate you to do your own study and soul-searching.  If there’s one thing to take away from this, it’s that our use of the material blessings God has given to us is a serious matter that deserves our sober reflection. I want to hear Jesus’ affirmation that I have been a good and faithful servant. I know that you do, too. So, my friends, what shall we do to repay our debt?


Jesus Died for Ariel Castro

CrossA couple days ago the news broke that Ariel Castro, the Ohio man who kidnapped three young women and imprisoned them in his house for years as his own personal sex slaves, committed suicide in prison. He was serving a sentence that would have lasted the rest of his natural life.

When I first saw the story on Yahoo! News, I knew immediately what the comments would be like. “Great news!” “Thankfully this saves the taxpayers a lot of money!” “Should have done it sooner!” “Rot in hell!” Now, I won’t deny that for many of us the death of a horrible, violent criminal probably evokes more positive feelings than negative. If it’s somewhere close to home we may even breathe a sigh of relief; our families are safer now. Some might even say that such a reaction is biblical. After all, didn’t the Bible writers sometimes exult over the death of enemies? The answer, of course, is yes. At times the Bible does depict the death of wicked people in positive terms, especially in regard to God’s judgment on sin.

But I’d like us to take a step back for a moment and look at the larger picture here. While there is a part of us that feels relief or even joy when the wicked perish, I have to wonder if that should be our only, or even our primary response. I wonder how God feels about the death of people like Ariel Castro. Is He up in heaven dancing for joy right now? Is He glad that the world is now rid of one more evil man?

There are three biblical principles that give me pause whenever I see people rejoicing over the death of the wicked. The first is expressed in passages like Ezekiel 33:11: “As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, O house of Israel?” (See also Ezek. 18:23, 32.) God does not rejoice when anyone dies, not even the wicked. His greatest desire is that everyone will repent and be saved (see 2 Pet. 3:9). If God does not take pleasure in the death of the wicked, how can we?

The second principle is the gospel itself. Jesus said, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (John 3:16, 17). The whole purpose of Jesus’ coming to earth was to save people from death. And lest we think that He came only for good people, remember that He said: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17). Paul, in a similar vein wrote: “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:6-8). Friends, let’s be clear on this: Jesus died for Ariel Castro. He wanted to save Ariel the same way He wants to save every sinner. He loved Ariel and had a plan for His life, a plan that involved an eternity of happiness, not horrific degradation ending in death.

The third principle comes from 1 Timothy 1:15: “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst.” Now, if we were to compare the life of Paul with the life of Ariel Castro, or the life of Charles Manson, or the life of Adolf Hitler, we might be inclined to think maybe Paul got it wrong. He was not the worst of sinners; those guys might not be either, but they’re certainly in the running. But I think that attitude completely misses the point. Paul is demonstrating the humility that comes from an awareness of one’s true sinful condition. When we consider the sins we have committed in comparison with the boundless grace of Christ, we ought to feel utterly unworthy, and with Paul we ought to exclaim, “Jesus died for me—for me, the worst of all sinners!” If ever we look at the death of another sinner and think, “Good riddance; he deserved it,” while looking at our own life with prideful piety, then we have not come to terms with the weight of our own sin. We may like to think that we’re better than the Ariel Castros of the world because we haven’t committed the heinous acts that they did. But perhaps we do not have as high a view of holiness as God has. Perhaps we do not find sin as abhorrent as God does. I like the way Ellen White put it in her book Steps to Christ:

God does not regard all sins as of equal magnitude; there are degrees of guilt in His estimation, as well as in that of man; but however trifling this or that wrong act may seem in the eyes of men, no sin is small in the sight of God. Man’s judgment is partial, imperfect; but God estimates all things as they really are. The drunkard is despised and is told that his sin will exclude him from heaven; while pride, selfishness, and covetousness too often go unrebuked. But these are sins that are especially offensive to God; for they are contrary to the benevolence of His character, to that unselfish love which is the very atmosphere of the unfallen universe. He who falls into some of the grosser sins may feel a sense of his shame and poverty and his need of the grace of Christ; but pride feels no need, and so it closes the heart against Christ and the infinite blessings He came to give. (p. 30)

The only sin that God cannot forgive is the one we refuse to confess. The most despicable, evil sinner in the world can be saved by God, but the prideful, unrepentant sinner, no matter how insignificant his sin may seem to us, is utterly lost. In light of this, we should be careful not to pass harsh judgments on other sinners while exalting ourselves for our imagined purity. It may be that the sinner we think is worse than us will get into heaven while we miss out.

Now, let me make something clear: nothing I’ve written here is in any way a justification for the horrific acts perpetrated by Ariel Castro. There is no doubt that he was an utterly depraved man who sinned against his victims, against humanity, and against God. By all appearances, he is destined for eternal condemnation, though we must always leave final judgment to God. While there is a certain kind of relief in knowing that God will not let him get away with his crimes, that he will pay the ultimate price for his sins, I believe our reaction must involve more than that. If we want to fully reflect the character of God, then we must mourn as He mourns over the needless loss of a life that Jesus died to save.

Think about it: Ariel Castro could have gone to heaven to live eternally with Jesus. The only thing stopping him was his choice to follow his own sinful way instead of accepting Jesus’ free offer of eternal life. The same is true for all of us. Whether we like to admit it or not, we’re all in the same boat as Ariel. Either we let Jesus pay the price for our sins, or we pay the price. Ariel chose the latter. What will you choose?


My friend Vincent, also a pastor, blogged on this topic, too.