Tag Archive: Bible


SwordI have a confession. Often when I am reading the Bible and I come across a particularly powerful passage, I immediately think of the people I know who need to read it. In fact, I suspect that sometimes I find a passage so compelling because it reminds me of other people’s problems, their wrong attitudes and actions. Now, I don’t intentionally read the Bible looking for ammunition against others. But it’s easy for me to see the relevance of certain passages to real-life problems.

But I’m not ashamed to make that confession for two reasons. First, I know that most of you do the same thing when you read the Bible, so I have plenty of company. And second, it’s not always wrong to read a passage of Scripture and apply it to someone else’s situation. Sometimes that’s a necessary and helpful response. But we’ll get to that later. Right now I want to focus on the first reason.

Be honest—you do this, too. You read the Bible and think of all the people who need to hear what you’ve just read. Maybe you even think of passive-aggressive ways you could covertly tell them—say, a Facebook status update. This method even has its own term: vaguebooking, posting an ambiguous status update designed to elicit sympathetic response from friends but also conceal the real reason behind the post. That way if the person you’re directing it at confronts you, you can claim it wasn’t about them personally. It’s a digital deniable op.

The problem with reading the Bible this way is that it short-circuits the true purpose of God’s word. Scripture was not given to us so we could use it to bludgeon others when they screw up. It was given to convict us personally of our sin so that we can right our own wrongs first. Jesus was dealing with this very issue in Matthew 7 when He taught us not to judge others. Before I go picking at the speck in my brother’s eye, I first must remove the plank in my own eye. The Spirit who inspired the Scriptures is the one who convicts us of sin, and conviction is always personal.

Paul called the word of God the “sword of the Spirit” (Eph. 6:17). But he didn’t mean we should use it to cut each other. He meant we should use it to fend off Satan when he attacks us. It’s not nearly as fun to apply Scripture to my own sins as it is to point fingers at someone else. I don’t usually like feeling convicted. It’s an uncomfortable feeling because it calls me to change, and none of us really like change. Not personally, anyway; I’m more than happy to point out where others need to change. Perhaps that’s why we turn the sword against each other. When we feel the cut, we shrink back from the discomfort and attempt to direct it toward others. Have you ever noticed that the faults we most often criticize in others are the ones with which we struggle the most?

In Hebrews, the author describes the sword this way: “For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Heb. 4:12). The Bible must always first and foremost convict me personally—my thoughts, my attitudes, my heart. Only after it has cut me to the heart can I understand what it means and then apply it to others. If I don’t let it cut me first, I have no right to cut others with it. There is a time and a place to use Scripture to encourage, comfort, and even rebuke others. But I cannot rightly do that unless I have applied the Bible to myself first. The next time you read a verse and start thinking about who needs to hear it, listen to it yourself. You may be surprised by how relevant it is to your life.

Advertisements

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?

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.

This blog was originally published on Facebook on Sept. 5, 2010.

 

Lifted Hands Silhouette

The other day I was reading Ephesians 3:14-19. I was struck by the last part of verse 19. Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians is that they would “be filled with all the fullness of God.” It seems as though Paul is referring here to the believers’ spiritual maturity. He wants them to be able to understand just how big God’s love is (v. 18), and not just in an intellectual way. He wants them to experience it, to “know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge” (v. 19). The result is that they will be filled with all the fullness of God. This got me to thinking about my own life and the way I’ve thought about spiritual maturity in the past.

I was raised in the Adventist church. I grew up hearing Bible stories, going to church every week, and learning the doctrines of the church. I’ve always known that spiritual disciplines like prayer and Bible study are important in the life of the Christian. I knew I was supposed to do those things every day, and that if I did so, I would become spiritually mature. But maybe I didn’t really understand the purpose of those spiritual disciplines. I viewed Bible study as a way to learn about God, and indeed it is. But maybe it’s more than that.

In Ephesians 3:19, Paul indicates that spiritual maturity is knowing God’s love. To turn that phrase around: knowing God’s love is the way that we become spiritually mature. I’ve tended to think of spiritual maturity in terms of being “good,” and in terms of knowledge. In other words, I’m spiritually mature when I become a “good” person, when I read my Bible and pray a lot, and when I know a lot about the Bible and about God. But maybe that’s a bad approach. Maybe I should focus on knowing and experiencing God’s love, and being good will happen as a result. Spiritual maturity isn’t knowing a lot about God; it’s knowing God! Spiritual maturity isn’t about what I know; it’s about Who I know. And it’s not even so much about what I do as it is about why I do it.

Here I am, a recent college graduate with a degree in theology. I’m currently studying at the seminary to earn a Master of Divinity degree. I’m trying to “be good.” I’m trying to “be a pastor.” I’m trying to figure out how I can have a deeper relationship with God. I want to be spiritually mature. But now I’m wondering: maybe it’s not just about studying the Bible more, praying more, doing more good things. Maybe it’s about connecting with God through all of the above. Maybe, despite my best intentions, I’ve been self-centered in my attempts to grow spiritually. Maybe I need to take a step back, take a deep breath, and refocus, reminding myself that this is not about me. If I want to grow spiritually, I need to live a God-centered life. Reading the Bible isn’t about me becoming smarter, filling my head full of theological facts; it’s about getting to know God and His amazing love. Praying isn’t about me being pious; it’s about talking to Jesus, my best friend.

As I read that passage in Ephesians, I felt God calling to me and saying, “Get to know Me! Stop trying to be a good person; come sit at My feet, like Mary did, and learn to be a godly person. Stop trying to perfect yourself by becoming better and smarter; instead, learn to follow Me, the only Perfect One, and along the journey you will come to reflect My character.”

If you’ve ever had similar thoughts about your own spiritual journey, I encourage you to take a good look at how you view your relationship with God. Do you study and pray because it’s the right thing, the good thing to do? Do you study and pray because it makes you better and smarter? Or do you study and pray because you want to know Jesus more, because when you’re digging deep into the Scriptures, or when you’re kneeling beside your bed at night, it’s like hanging out with your best friend? Are you trying to be a good person, or are you trying to be a godly person? Someone has pointed out that the two really aren’t different. To be truly good is to be godly, and vice versa. But it’s a matter of focus. If we’re striving to be good, if we’re reading the Bible to become smarter, then our focus can easily shift to self. But if we’re striving to be godly, if we’re reading the Bible to know God, then our focus is on Him.

As we continue to hang out with Jesus day after day, we’re going to become more like Him. We’re going to become good. It won’t happen because we tried really hard to become good. It will happen because we spent a lot of time with a Good Person, and by beholding Jesus we became like Him.