Category: Theology


Understanding Job

scotland-1645868I’ve been reading through the book of Job. It’s been awhile since I read it. I think I’ve avoided it because it seems hard to understand. It’s the kind of book whose meaning scholars debate endlessly. But after going through some of the most difficult years of my life, and trying to process the grief, pain, and loss, I found myself drawn to Job’s story. So I started reading.

What I’ve found is that Job really isn’t that hard to understand. I completely relate to him (even though I haven’t experienced quite the same level of suffering that he did). I get him. His response to suffering makes sense to me, because I’ve thought similar things myself. Why is this happening? God, where are You, and what are You doing? What have I done to deserve this? When will the pain stop?

I get Job’s friends, too. There’s a part of me that feels like every time something bad happens it must be my fault. I did something to deserve it. That’s essentially the message Job’s friends tell him. You brought this on yourself. God blesses the righteous and punishes the wicked, so if you are suffering this badly—well, you do the math.

What I’ve realized is that I couldn’t really understand Job until I went through some major life crises of my own. Until you’ve walked through the fire and the flood you can’t relate to those who have. My wife was saying the other day that she feels like grief is its own sense. Trying to explain what it’s like to someone who hasn’t experienced it on a deep level is like trying to explain color to someone who can’t see. There’s just no way to communicate it. It must be felt.

Another thing I’ve noticed while reading through Job is that I keep wanting to get to the part where God answers Job. Quick, give me the answers so I can hurry up and finish the test! But that part doesn’t come until the very end. The book of Job is pretty long, and most of it is his anguished dialog with his friends while he is in the depths of pain and despair. That’s what the experience of suffering is like in real life. You can’t rush through it or skip to the end. It’s a long process of agonizing pain, doubt, and fear. There are no shortcuts through it or detours around it.

And some of us will never get a direct answer from God. If you read the end of Job’s story, even though God does speak to him out of the storm, He never actually answers Job’s questions about why he is suffering. He simply reminds Job that He is God, and Job is not. I know that scholars far more knowledgeable than me have offered complex interpretations of the meaning of Job’s suffering. But looking at his story from the perspective of someone who has gone through suffering, maybe the simplest meaning is that sometimes there isn’t a neat, tidy answer to all our questions. Sometimes we may never know, at least this side of heaven, why God allowed us to walk through the valley of the shadow of death. The point of Job’s story isn’t to give us a satisfactory answer for our suffering. It’s to remind us that God remains God even when we’re experiencing the deepest pain, even when we feel like He has abandoned us, and to give us hope that He has the solution to our suffering.

See, there’s a difference between an answer for our suffering and a solution to our suffering. I’m not sure that Job ever really got an answer. But he got a solution. In the end, God healed his sickness, restored his family and his fortune, and blessed his latter years even more than the former. Those of us who have experienced suffering in this life have the promise that one day, Jesus will come back to this earth to make things right. He can’t undo all the pain we have experienced—and we shouldn’t want Him to. That pain has shaped our characters and taught us to rely on God. But He promises to wipe away every tear from our eyes, to create a world where there will never again be death or mourning or crying or pain, and to give us life eternal in this new world, life with Him and with all those who love Him.

That sounds like a pretty good deal to me. I may not get an answer to all my questions about why I am suffering. But I will get a solution for every pain I’ve felt, every tear I’ve shed. And that’s enough for me to keep trusting Him.

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Christ Is Risen!

Image credit: FreeBibleImages.org

Image credit: FreeBibleImages.org

This past weekend we celebrated the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the most important event in earth’s history. Jesus made it possible for us to be saved from sin and death through His own sacrificial death. Often when we talk about salvation, we focus on the cross. That is a very important part of the plan of salvation. But the resurrection is equally important. Without it the entire Christian religion is meaningless. Check out what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:13-19:

If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.

Some people like to say that if there was no resurrection, no heaven, no eternal reward for following Jesus, they would still be Christians because it’s still worth it. Christianity has made their lives better, so even if it all turns out to be a fairy tale, they wouldn’t change a thing. The temporary benefits of Christianity are enough.

Nonsense. If there is no resurrection, no heaven, no eternity with Jesus, then Christianity is worthless. Actually, it’s worse than worthless, because it gives us a false hope for a better future that will never come. It tells us to believe in a God who is powerless to defeat sin and death. What kind of faith is that? How does false hope make life better? It’s a pitiful way to live. We might as well pursue what little enjoyment we can get out of this life, because this is it. Later in the chapter Paul says, “If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die’” (1 Cor. 15:32).

The only reason that Christianity has any meaning or power to make our lives better is because Jesus is alive! “But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive” (1 Cor. 15:20-22).

Christ is risen! He has defeated sin and death! And the same power that brought Him forth from the grave is the same power that works in our lives to break the chains of sin and to give us hope for a better future when death will finally be destroyed forever.

Jesus’ power is still the same today; it has not diminished in the slightest. We can claim His promise and receive that power in our lives. This isn’t just a once-a-year commitment that we make after we’ve experienced a stirring Easter church service or witnessed a powerful Passion Play. The real challenge is to live every day in the resurrection power of Jesus. Jesus really is alive. Are you?

Before you read Part 4 of this series, it’s really important to understand the context for what I’m about to say. If you haven’t read the entire series, at least read Part 3 first (I promise it’s short).

Jesus Cleansing the Temple 4

Image credit: FreeBibleImages.org

There’s another application of these ideas that might hit a little closer to home for some of us. Please understand that I don’t write this in a critical or condemnatory spirit. Rather, I write from a pastor’s heart. I long to see Jesus’ church reclaim His mission—seeking and saving the lost.

But I worry that the modern church has reversed Jesus’ methodology. We are gentle and accommodating to well-churched people, and we worry tremendously about offending them. (If you’ve ever been on a church board or nominating committee you know what I’m talking about.) But we seem to give little thought to how we might be offending those who are not so firmly established in the church. When new people come to our churches, many of them feel immediately that they are not good enough to meet our standards. They don’t look like us, smell like us, talk like us, and they certainly don’t live like us. And sadly our attitude toward them communicates that until they do become like us, they won’t be accepted.

One especially egregious example is our treatment of young people, even young people already in the church, unfortunately. They come to church dressed “inappropriately,” and some self-appointed church guardian scolds them (anonymous letters seem to be a popular tactic). They sing special music and the beat is a little too strong, so they’re reminded to be more “reverent” next time (as if they’re going to want to sing again after being shamed the first time). When they speak up and share their ideas, we often ignore them. If we bother to listen at all we may tell them that they lack the wisdom and experience to comment intelligently on the important matters of the church—not necessarily in those words, but the message is clear: “leave it to the adults, kids.”

The well-churched folks who do this kind of thing may be well-meaning, but good intentions are not enough. Sadly they are misrepresenting the gospel. No one is good enough for God’s grace, not even church folks. You may be a tithe-paying, Sabbath-keeping, vegan-eating Seventh-day Adventist, but none of that qualifies you to receive God’s grace. But like the Pharisees, when spiritual pride creeps in we imagine ourselves better than others. We may not say it openly, but our self-righteousness is obvious to others.

Please don’t think I’m being judgmental of judgmental people. I’m not any better than they are. I’m just as bad as they are, and I need Jesus just as much as they do. But part of being the body of Christ means that we hold each other accountable. There are times when we must take a stand and say enough is enough. We need to stop letting spiritual pride hinder others from coming to Jesus.

Now, I know someone may be thinking: “But what about our standards? Who will uphold them? Who will guard the church from creeping compromise?” The answer is simple—Jesus. He’s the one who protects His bride, the church. What are we so afraid of? Are we worried that if we let our guard down, we’ll come to church some morning to find that the sinners outnumber the saints? If that happens, praise the Lord! Our mission on this earth is not to preserve a holy country club where only platinum-level church members are allowed. Our mission is to join with Jesus in seeking and saving the lost. It’s messy business that requires a lot of patience and gentleness in dealing with very imperfect people. Remember how Jesus showed you gentleness, then go and do thou likewise.

It takes a lot of wisdom and guidance from the Holy Spirit to know when to be gentle, and when to firmly rebuke. The example Jesus gave us is a great place to start. Be gentle with the wandering soul looking for hope, love, and salvation. Be firm with the self-righteous saint hindering others from finding those things. This blog series is not intended to be a manual on who to offend and who not to offend. I don’t pretend to know the answer for every situation. But I think it’s high time the church had a conversation about all of this. Share your thoughts in the comments.

When Jesus Offends Us, Part 3

Image credit: FreeBibleImages.org

Image credit: FreeBibleImages.org

In this blog series we’ve looked at Jesus’ interactions with people and saw that when dealing with wayward sinners He was gentle and patient, but when dealing with self-righteous religious people He was blunt and even offensive. We observed that the reason He was so straightforward with the Pharisees is that He wanted to break through the fog of pride that kept them from seeing their need of repentance. Jesus’ first and foremost desire is to save lost sinners, whoever they are. Last week we ended with another question: If Jesus was gentle and compassionate with wayward sinners, but blunt and offensive with the respected religious leaders of His day, how might He relate to 21st century well-churched Christians? What would He say to us?

The answer to that question depends on how we respond to Jesus. Do we come to Him with broken hearts seeking forgiveness for our sin? Do we fully acknowledge our need of Him and put our confidence in none of our righteousness, but in His alone? Then Jesus rejoices over us and welcomes us into His kingdom with open arms (see Luke 15). The humble, repentant sinner will always find a gentle and forgiving Savior.

But if we allow ourselves to become prideful and confident in our status as “good Christians,” and if we imagine ourselves to be better than the people around us, we may find that Jesus, determined to break our self-induced spell of spiritual arrogance, becomes just as blunt with us as He was with the Pharisees. God’s Word still convicts today, and whenever we allow pride to creep into our hearts, Scripture stings like a slap in the face. No one likes to be rebuked. But since the convicting rebukes of Scripture are for our own good, we should rejoice that God does not let us drown in self-delusion.

There are times when I am the whitewashed tomb. I look the part, talk the part, and act the part of a “holy saint,” but in my heart I harbor bitterness, criticism, or pride. I am a hypocrite. I judge others for their failures and wonder how they can call themselves Christians when they say and do that, but I excuse my own sins and ignore the times I’ve failed in the exact same way for which I’m condemning others. I’m thankful that Jesus bluntly spoke these words, and through the Holy Spirit still speaks them to me today: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (Matt. 7:1, 2).

Of course, it’s our choice how we respond to Jesus’ rebuke. Like the Pharisees, we can harden our hearts against Him. We can delude ourselves further by thinking that Jesus is talking about others, but surely not about me. I’m certainly not prideful or spiritually arrogant—though I can think of a few people who are. (I’m saying this ironically, of course.)

Or we can take His rebuke to heart and repent of our Pharisaical attitude. I’d like to suggest that all of us, after we’ve been Christians for a time, are tempted to think better of ourselves than we ought. Let’s own up to it, repent of our pride, and ask Jesus to help us see others through His eyes. And let’s learn to treat them with the gentleness He shows them. And maybe we can even learn how to firmly hold each other accountable for pride, judgmentalism, and hypocrisy. More on that to come…

When Jesus Offends Us, Part 2

Image credit: FreeBibleImages.org

Image credit: FreeBibleImages.org

Last week we looked at a different side of Jesus than we usually consider. There were times when He was blunt and outright offensive to the religious sensibilities of the people in His day. Jesus’ bold teachings still confront us today, and it’s actually good for us that they do. Here’s the question we considered at the end of last week’s blog: What was Jesus’ purpose in coming to this earth, and how do His blunt, offensive teachings serve that purpose?

Jesus expressed His purpose in John 3:16, 17—probably the most loved and well-known of all Bible passages: “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.” He did this by giving “his life as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28). He also said, “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:32). Jesus came to this earth to save sinners by sacrificing His life for them and calling them to repent of their sinful ways and to believe in Him as Savior and Lord.

So how do Jesus’ offensive teachings serve that purpose? First, consider what Jesus’ death tells us about God: He will go to any lengths to save us. He will sacrifice His very life to redeem us. Such a God will not let anything stand in the way of His rescue mission, not even the self-righteousness and pride of self-proclaimed “good” religious people.

Jesus loved the Pharisees. He wanted to save even them! If we read His blunt conversations with them and think that He’s simply giving them a slap on the wrist for their holier-than-thou attitudes, we would miss the point. This is the same Jesus who wept over the city of Jerusalem, knowing that their rejection of Him would lead to a terrible end (see Luke 19:41-44). This is the Jesus who, even after pronouncing woe upon woe against the Pharisees, cried out, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing” (Matt. 23:37).

The heart of God breaks for lost sinners and yearns to save them, even those who reject Him and refuse the grace He extends to them. If He needs to bluntly offend us in order to get through to us, He will. Jesus will not let anyone slip easily into hell. He will meet our false sense of self-righteous security with a truthful smack upside the head. Apart from violating our free will and His own loving character, Jesus will do anything to wake us out of our sinful stupor.

Which brings us to a second reason why Jesus was so forceful with the Pharisees: they were actually preventing others from receiving the salvation that He came to offer. In rebuking the Pharisees, Jesus told them:

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to. Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are.” (Matt. 23:13, 15).

The Pharisees were misleading the people, and worse, hindering them from entering the kingdom of God. Their stubborn refusal to consider the possibility that their perfectly tuned system of religion might be mistaken blinded them to the reality of God Himself present in their midst. Not only did they deny Jesus as their Messiah, they used their influence to oppose Him and to prevent people from following Him. No doubt Jesus was including the Pharisees when He said:

“But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to sin! Such things must come, but woe to the man through whom they come!” (Matt. 18:6, 7)

Both of these reasons—Jesus’ desire to save even the stubbornly self-righteous, and the tendency of the self-righteous to inhibit the salvation of others—are still applicable today. The attitude of the Pharisees is alive and well, sometimes within our own hearts. Those of us who have been religious for much or all of our lives are especially susceptible to Pharisaical pride. And like the Pharisees, we do not see ourselves as prideful, but rather as good, moral, religious folks.

In next week’s blog we’ll look at some practical implications of Jesus’ offensive teachings. We’ll end this week’s blog with another question: If Jesus was gentle and compassionate with wayward sinners, but blunt and offensive with the respected religious leaders of His day, how might He relate to 21st century well-churched Christians? What would He say to us?

When Jesus Offends Us, Part 1

Image credit: FreeBiblePictures.org

Image credit: FreeBibleImages.org

Gentle Jesus, meek and mild,
Look upon a little child;
Pity my simplicity,
Suffer me to come to Thee.

– Charles Welsey

 

So goes the first verse of the old hymn. It reminds us of the little children who Jesus welcomed with open arms (Luke 18:16). The Gospels are filled with stories of Jesus’ kindness and gentleness. Jesus showed the woman caught in adultery forgiveness instead of condemnation (John 8). He treated the Samaritan woman at the well with dignity, even though He knew about her sordid personal life (John 4). When He saw the multitudes He had compassion on them because He realized “they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matt. 9:36).

But there are also stories that reveal a different aspect of His character. While interacting with faltering, failing sinners He was tender and compassionate. But when dealing with the religious leaders of His day, the “good” people, the “moral” people, He could be quite blunt. In fact, if we really took His words to heart we would probably find them offensive, as did the religious, “churchy” people of His day.

Gentle Jesus, meek and mild, could also be righteously angry Jesus, upending the tables of the moneychangers and driving those shameless swindlers out of the temple with a whip (John 2). He could also be sharply rebuking Jesus, who called the religious leaders of His day hypocrites, whitewashed tombs, blind guides, snakes, and sons of hell (Matt. 23).

To deepen the impact of some of Jesus’ offensive statements, let’s bring them into the 21st century. Imagine that Jesus walked into your church one day and declared, “The homosexuals and the Muslims are getting into heaven ahead of you Christians” (see Matt. 21:28-32). Or imagine that He told a story about two men who came to prayer meeting one night: one a good, upstanding church elder and the other a divorced, jobless, hopeless alcoholic (see Luke 18:9-14). The twist in His story is that the alcoholic, rather than the church elder, went home forgiven and accepted by God.

How would you respond? How do you think most Christians would respond? I live in the Bible Belt, not far from Chattanooga, which was recently named the most Bible-minded city in America. I can tell you how most people here would take it: not well. But that’s very similar to how offensive Jesus’ actual words were when He told the Pharisees that the worst sinners of all, the tax collectors and the prostitutes, were entering the kingdom of God ahead of them, and were justified by God instead of them. It’s no wonder why they plotted to kill Him. He called them out publicly and deeply offended their religious sensibilities—and their pride.

I believe Jesus’ offensive teachings still confront us today. Like a thorn stuck in our shoe, they make us uncomfortably aware of our true condition and they refuse to let us ignore it. That’s actually a good thing. We’ll discuss why next week in Part 2 of this blog. For now, reflect on this: What was Jesus’ purpose in coming to this earth, and how do His blunt, offensive teachings serve that purpose? I believe the answer to that question tells us something wonderful about the love of Jesus. Stay tuned…

I recently came across this video which puts some rather shocking statistics about wealth inequality in America into visual format. It’s disturbing to say the least. Watch the video below (it’s only about six minutes long), and then we’ll pick up a bit of commentary afterwards.

So, what did you think? Pretty heavy stuff, right? Now, before we go any further I just want to emphasize that this is a religion blog, not a political blog. I’m not endorsing any particular political solution to the problem of wealth inequality. However, I am deeply interested in how Christians should respond to this problem. First of all, do we believe that income inequality is a problem? Why or why not? If it is a problem (and I believe it is, for many reasons), should Christians be concerned about it and take action to address it? Why or why not? If we should be concerned and take action (and again, I believe we should, for many reasons), what action should we take?

In my series on a biblical theology of wealth, which regrettably I haven’t added to in awhile, I have stated several times that I believe we’re more influenced by our culture than we are by the Bible when it comes to our view of wealth. Wealth inequality is one example of our culturally-induced blindness; it’s an area Christians need to address biblically. To ignore the suffering of millions of people who lack the basic necessities of life places us squarely in the camp of the goats (see Matt. 25:31-46). At the judgment, when Jesus confronts their indifference, they reply in shock, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?” In reply Jesus reminds them, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.”

Of course, on the flip side, Jesus affirms the sheep, those who do feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, visit the sick and imprisoned. Interestingly, though, this group also does not realize that when they did these things they were doing it to Jesus. The powerful lesson that Jesus teaches us is that whenever we care for those who are less fortunate than ourselves, it’s as if we are caring for Jesus Himself. That is how closely He identifies with the poor, the oppressed, and the suffering.

One last thought: this video only deals with wealth inequality in America. Imagine how much greater the inequality would be if we included the entire world. Imagine if we compared the wealth of the world’s richest to the poverty of the world’s poorest. It’s an almost unfathomable gap. Let’s never forget that God loves every person on this planet, no matter what economic bracket they’re in, no matter what country they are from. As followers of Jesus we should be just as concerned as He is with the plight of the poor and oppressed in every part of the world, for all bear His image, and all have been purchased by His blood.

So, how should Christians respond to all of this? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

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.

Cash

For some time now I’ve wanted to do a study on the Bible’s teachings about wealth and poverty. While I was in school I was always writing papers about other topics and never seemed to find the time for this one. Now that I’m out of school it has occurred to me that I can choose my own research topics (although finding time is a perpetual challenge).

I believe such studies are vitally important because our society’s values and God’s values do not always line up. It could be argued that they rarely line up. Unless we withdraw to a remote, internet-free wilderness and become hermits, society’s influence on us is inevitable. The solution to the potentially negative influence of society is not to retreat to a hermitage, but to align our values, attitudes, and beliefs with God’s instead of with the world’s. Unfortunately, when it comes to wealth and poverty I’m not sure we’ve done such a good job of that.

Thus I’ve decided to write a series of blogs on this subject in which I’ll chronicle my study and findings. I’m not proposing that I’ll find all of the answers; maybe I’ll just end up with more questions. But I think the study is worth undertaking. It’s a rather daunting task, though, because even with the little research I’ve already done I’ve learned that the Bible has a lot to say on the matter, so much so that it would take a dissertation-level research project to thoroughly cover everything. I’m not setting out to do that (yet). Others undoubtedly already have, more ably than I ever could. That’s why the blog series is named “Toward a Biblical Theology of Wealth.” I won’t claim that what I present will be exhaustive and conclusive. Hopefully it will be informative, though, and indicative of God’s values.

It’s risky to venture into this area because it is often controversial. Start talking about our responsibility to care for the poor and some people will assume you are a liberal socialist bent on redistributing their wealth to lazy moochers who want a free ride through life. It’s true that when taken to the extreme the fight against poverty can become an end unto itself (the social gospel). But the Bible says far too much in favor of caring for the poor for Christians to dismiss the idea outright. May I humbly suggest that our resistance to the concept is influenced more by our capitalistic society than by biblical values? I’m not undertaking the political question here; that’s for someone else to tackle. I’m looking at the biblical evidence and asking what the Christian’s response should be. What is God’s view of wealth and poverty? How should a Christian manage their financial means? What should be our response to those in need? These are a few of the questions to which I hope to find biblical answers.