Obedience to God is Not the Greatest Good

It is so easy to sort through the Christian faith and only find morality isn’t it? We focus on things like the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, and other parts of the Bible and make lists and lists of rules. Some of which are directly connected to the Bible and others that are of a more supplemental nature.

I remember being a young Christian trying to sort through all of the rules. I had run into many rules that some Christians called being obedient to God, that I didn’t understand the foundation of. Where did God forbid dancing, alcohol, gambling, and Harry Potter? While I understood some of the reasons behind such ideas, it was one thing to give a reasoned account of why something could be dangerous and another to say that God absolutely forbids it and would be angry with us for doing it. In this kind of framework obedience to God is the most important thing.

I’ve been thinking about the idea that obedience to God is the greatest hallmark of our faith, and I’m not sure I believe it. This thought process started mainly because of the story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac. A lot of people praise Abraham for obeying God, even for such a difficult request. At times though this looks to others like blind obedience that isn’t nearly as appealing. In fact, some people who praise Abraham are also looking for blind obedience to the words they speak, because they claim they are also directly from God.

While I would not want to jettison obedience from the Christian faith, I wonder if the emphasis should be placed somewhere else. Did Abraham obey out of blind submission to God or was there something more going on here? I would say that ultimately Abraham’s ability to obey was more connected to his knowledge of God and a trust, faith, respect, and even love for God. It is this trust, respect, and love for God that is our ultimate calling in my opinion.

Obedience to someone doesn’t mean that we trust them, respect them, or love them. We can obey bosses that we don’t respect, because we want to keep our job. Sometimes we obeyed our parents not out of love or respect, but because we wanted them to leave us alone. For those who now have kids I’m sure that we can see times when our own kids do the same.

It is not hard to obey God out of that same motivation. We can easily come to view God as the one servant in the parable of the talents did in Matthew 25:14-30. God becomes “a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed,” and causes us to “become afraid” and we do little so we don’t get him angry.

Being obedient can also be used to get our way on things. This reminded me of Tim Keller’s book The Prodigal God where he talks about obedience as a way to have God owe us. “You can avoid Jesus as Savior by keeping all the moral laws. If you do that, then you have ‘rights.’ God owes you answered prayers, and a good life, and a ticket to heaven when you die. You don’t need a Savior who pardons you by free grace, for you are your own Savior. ”

Again here we have an obedience that isn’t out of a trust, respect, or love for God. In this case it isn’t out of a fear of God, but rather trying to earn good things through our obedience. We obey out of a desire to get a reward and think that more obedience will equal more rewards.

It is this train of thought that leads me to conclude that obedience is not the end we are seeking to achieve as Christians. Obedience will be part of the Christian life, but if it becomes the end it can be done to avoid punishment or get reward. This kind of obedience can be disconnected from trust, respect, or love. As Jesus says in Matthew 22:37-40, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

Jesus views love of God as the great and first commandment, not obedience. Again, I do think that the love of God will lead us to concrete ways of expressing that love. This will probably even look a lot like obedience. However, obedience is not the final destination. The destination is love of God. It is being able to love, trust, and respect God. This is greater than both our obedience and our sins.

Fear Makes Everyone An Enemy

After focusing on Lot and the events at Sodom in Genesis 19 last week, we move again to Abraham. Strangely, despite moving back to Abraham, we are not really concerned with the promise of Isaac. Genesis 20 instead deals with an incident involving Abraham and Abimelek that is reminiscent of the incident that takes place in Egypt in Genesis 12.

What we see here is Abraham moving on from the trees of Mamre to Gerar. When relocated Abraham once again tells Sarah to pretend to be his sister. The position of this scheme is rather interesting. We see Abraham imploring God to show mercy to Sodom a couple chapters ago, with Brueggemann even going as for to say that Abraham was trying to teach God. Yet, here we have Abraham lying and scheming because he was afraid that Abimelek would not fear God.

Due to this lie, Sarah is taken in by Abimelek. This is strange in itself because we’re seeing Sarah as being rather advanced in age, at least if we take the story as chronological. That Abimelek is taking her in as a potential wife/concubine is a bit odd, but that’s not really where I want to focus. I’m wanting to focus on Abraham’s fear.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen it. We saw it in the similar incident in Genesis 12. Abraham feared these outside figures more than he trusted in God. The schemes that he hatched not placed Sarah in risky situations both times, since she’s taken in by the Pharaoh in Egypt and Abimelek here. Here though we also see that Abraham’s lie places Abimelek in danger as well.

What is particularly interesting here is that God speaks to Abimelek warning him about what he has done. Abimelek responds in earnest and is found innocent by God. When Abimelek confronts Abraham about it, Abraham gives a rather weak excuse that basically boils down to the idea that he was afraid of Abimelek and his people. This fear led Abraham to lie, or at least half-lie as Abraham was trying to spin it.

What we see is a rather strange role reversal in this story. Abraham is supposed to be the righteous one, yet Abimelek is acting much more righteous than Abraham. Brueggemann says that “Here Abimelek models faith lacking in Abraham, the father of faith.” It’s a strange irony.

Yet, I wonder if that irony doesn’t play out far too often in our own lives. I think we’ve all known fear. Fear is something I wrote about not too long ago. Yet, fear is a terrible motivator. It motivates us to do things like Abraham in this passage, to lie, twist, or hide the truth. It makes us look at others with suspicious eyes worried that they will hurt us or are out to get us in some way.

The trouble I often have in sorting through this is that often our reactions made in fear are due to the wounds people have given us in the past. We are often afraid of how people will respond when we say, act, or do something because we’ve been hurt before or seen other people hurt before. Our reasons for being wary are often not entirely unfounded.

We’ve all been burned by people we’ve trusted, whether parent, pastor, teacher, or even friends. We can look at statistics regarding abuse and sexual abuse and understand that there are people who are deserving of fear. I don’t think we should live life in a perpetual naivety thinking that everyone is friendly and will never ever hurt you. Yet I also think there is a danger of fearing everyone as well.

I think when fear is the first reaction to every person we meet we turn them into an enemy. We may not even know much about them, like Abraham and Abimelek, but we make assumptions and turn them into enemies who are out to get us. I think that this can look many ways.

We fear other parents who may look down on or disagree with our ways of parenting, so we go in with defenses raised and treat them as we would enemies.

We fear people who may look different than us because for some reason we think that looking different and coming from a different culture is a reason for viewing someone as an enemy.

We fear fellow Christians, no matter where they fall on the spectrum, because we worry we will face judgment and condemnation when we disagree. So we keep everything close, don’t share our own thoughts, and in our own way look down on them.

We fear people who aren’t Christian because we worry they’ll hate us or deride us for our faith. So we attack and make generalizations about them so we never have to worry about anyone like that getting too close.

We can fear pretty much anyone. If we let those fears take control than everyone around us can be turned into an enemy and I’m not sure we’re meant to look at those around us like that. In all honesty though, I’m not exactly sure how to approach people.

There is a dual reality underneath this whole incident. One can’t hide the fact that there are people who will attack, harm and judge us for little to no reason. They may be Christians or non-Christians; co-workers or strangers; they may even be people particularly close to us like family and friends. We have a reason to be wary, not every person is trustworthy, and simply being naive about that isn’t the answer.

Yet, at the same time if we begin to fear everyone we run across, we isolate ourselves and take a pretty harsh stance on the people around us. Not only that, but we may miss relationships that are positive for both us and the other person involved. We may even fall in the trap of Abraham, where our fear becomes great enough that we begin to lie and twist the truth because we are afraid of those around us.

This puts us in tension. Not letting fear or complete naivety control us. To understand that there may be people out there who will hurt us, but being careful that we don’t hurt others or shut them out due to our own fear. It’s a tricky balance to strike, but I do think it is a balance that reflects reality.

Fear At Every Turn

A good friend and mentor of mine often commented that fear is a terrible motivator and reason for doing something. I agree with this sentiment completely, but I find that I often have a difficult time putting that idea into practice. Fear is not always my main reason for my thoughts, actions, and inaction. However, I feel that fear is a constant companion perched on my shoulder and always quite willing to whisper in my ear.

It seems that fear is something that pops up all over the place. At best it feels like you’re playing whack-a-mole trying to drop the hammer on every fear as it pops from its hiding place. At worst it sometimes feels like your drowning. You don’t want to succumb to the fears that you have, but feel powerless to fight them off in any meaningful way.

These fears go into various aspects of life. There are the ones centered around home. I often fear what people think about the fact that I’m a stay-at-home dad. I fear that I’m not a good enough parent or husband. I fear being a bother to pretty much anyone.

I have fears centered around church and faith. I fear a lack of acceptance. My views tend to be a left (to use that imperfect way of putting it anyhow) of a decent number of conservative Christians, but a right of the more liberal or progressive strains of Christianity. I fear there will never be a place that I can fit in. Not that I mind disagreement, but have often found that most people do. Sometimes it even feels like fear shouldn’t be such an issue if my faith was strong enough.

I also feel fear about this little blog. I fear I’ll never impact much of anyone with my writing here. I fear that I’m wasting my time, that my thoughts mean nothing. However, I also fear success. I fear the negative attention that comes with popularity. I fear not being myself in order to chase success and popularity. I fear both irrelevance and relevance, it maybe sounds strange but I do.

To be honest I wish I knew what to do with all of these fears. No matter how hard I try to shake them off, they seem to cling on with their tiny little claws and endure. I’m fairly confident that I’m not the only one that struggles with these little, or not so little, fears that seem to pop up at every turn.

I know that fears will always persist and so I don’t have some sort of dream of never having fears. What I wish I did better with was pushing past the fears and moving forward. That’s something I don’t always feel I do a good job on. Sometimes it’s because of the fact that there are fears on both sides of an issue. Other times it is simply not knowing what move to make to push past the fear in question.

I even think that lacking any kind of fear can lead to recklessness. It reminds me of the idea of not being able to feel pain. It may not feel like it is hurting or affecting you, but you may be doing harm to yourself even if you don’t directly feel it. Fear and pain may not be enjoyable feelings, but I think they do serve some purpose. I don’t want to be paralyzed by fear, but I don’t think wishing it all away or brushing it aside is a healthy option either.

I don’t want fear to have control over me. As I said at the start of this post, fear is a terrible reason and motivation for doing something. Fear is something I think everyone faces in some way or another. Know that you are not alone in that. Maybe like me you don’t really know what to do about it, but at least take some solace that you aren’t alone in your fears.

We might be surprised how many people around us are fearful of something. That could be the reason they put on the show on the outside. It could be a show that pretends everything is wonderful, or it could be a show that pushes people away with harsh words and bad attitudes. We can often think we’re the only one afraid, but the truth is that fear may be at every turn for each person. It may look different from person to person in both what the fears are and the way the fears are handled, but they are still there.

Some people probably handle fear better than others. I want to face the fears I have and trust in the grace of God while doing so, knowing I’ll probably fail in it more than I’d like. Does that sound good to anyone?

Final Thoughts on Frozen

It feels kind of weird when watching a movie that is over a year old makes you feel a bit more relevant. Frozen released in 2013 and seemed to explode everywhere. It has become a rather powerful force spawning a popular soundtrack, toys, books, an attraction at Walt Disney World, and is even being adapted for Broadway. Needless to say even if you hadn’t watched Frozen it was hard to escape hearing and knowing at least a little about it. All this acclaim made us want to check out what all the fuss was about.

FROZN_014M_G_ENG-GB_70x100.inddThe story of Frozen centers around two sisters Elsa and Anna. Elsa was born with the power to create snow and ice and the power is enjoyed immensely by both Elsa and her younger sister. An accident while playing causes Anna’s memories of her sister’s power to be removed by the Troll King, the castle to be closed up, and Elsa isolated even from her sister until she is able to control her powers.

This method doesn’t really work and Elsa is afraid of her powers and her inability to control them like she wants to. This all comes to a head after Elsa’s and Anna’s parents die at sea and Elsa’s coronation means the castle will be open. During the coronation celebrations emotions come to a head when Anna tries to get engaged to Hans, a prince she has just met, and also confronts Elsa on shutting her out of her life for so long. This causes Elsa to flee and accidentally freeze their kingdom in a magical winter. Anna chases after Elsa to try to get her to come back and undo what she has done.

That’s the basic plot for those who actually need it. So let’s get to what I thought were the strong and weak points of the movie shall we?

The overall story for Frozen is very enjoyable. It takes some of the themes from earlier Disney movies like “love at first sight” or “marrying someone you just met” and flips them. While this obvious rejection of cliches seems to be a popular way of making entertainment lately, I think that Frozen does it extremely well. As Frozen’s plot moves on you’re not sure if you’re going to be watching a romantic movie or a movie focused on the bond between sisters.

As much as people like to say that Frozen is all about the bond between sisters I found that to be only mostly true. The primary focus is about the bond between Elsa and Anna, but there is a secondary focus on romance. This plays out very differently between the two male interests of Anna. One follows the “marrying a man you just met” path and the other is more of a development over time. It’s still there and if you hadn’t heard that Frozen is about the relationship between sisters, you wouldn’t know until the end what the story’s dominant theme was going to wind up being.

Even with that acknowledgment, the strongest theme is still the love and bond between sisters, or siblings if you want to generalize it more. This appears in different ways throughout the movie. The laughing and giggling while playing as younger kids, the desire of Anna to reconnect with Elsa while growing up and going through the death of their parents found in the song “Do You Want to Build a Snowman”, and in Anna’s quest to find Elsa and attempt to have her return home.

In addition to this theme of relationship between sisters, there are other good themes at play here. One such theme seems to be that fear is a terrible motivator. You see Elsa at the beginning of the movie with good control over her powers. The accident that takes place regarding Anna early in the movie, is more to do with Anna not listening and getting lost in play than Elsa’s lack of control. However, because this incident leads Elsa and her parents to be afraid of further incidents the idea of needing to control the powers is front and center. Not that there weren’t legitimate concerns but it seemed that the fear was greater than needed and impeded Elsa’s ability to control her powers.You see this during the song “Let It Go” because now that she is not afraid she is able to use her powers to do some rather amazing things.

The story and themes are both good and I also found the music rather enjoyable too. Some songs are more serious and focused on the plot than others, but I still enjoyed them all. The only ones that were a bit out of place were Olaf’s song “In Summer” and the song the trolls sang, “Fixer Upper”. Still these were fun little songs that were still enjoyable even if they didn’t fit maybe as good as they could have.

How about some weak points? Honestly, I don’t really have too many. The ones I do are just nitpicky ideas like wondering how nobody but the King and Queen (and Anna before the accident) knew Elsa had her powers. Or wondering how Elsa got rid of the snow when they played together as kids. These aren’t really big issues and they were more things I thought about after the movie rather than during it.

Overall I’d say that the hype around Frozen is largely deserved. It’s a fun movie that is funny, charming, and even contains a pretty significant twist that I didn’t really see coming at all (I’m not one of those people who always spots twist though for the record). Emphasizing the love and relationship of sisters is a nice change of pace, and while it does pick on the emphasis of romance and particularly marrying someone you just met a la Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Snow White it still contains a bit of romance as well. I’m just hoping they don’t try to cash in too much on the movie by making sub-par sequels like they’ve done with some of the other Disney movies.

A Symbol of Pride and Fear

The Tower of Babel is not a story I thought could be all too controversial. I thought it was an example of human pride over and against God’s plan. It wasn’t until I read a post earlier this year from Morgan Guyton (actually he had a few where he talked about this story, but I’ll link this one) that this thought of mine was challenged. Admittedly, what he’s doing isn’t trying to give what he thinks about the passage, but more pushing back against an interpretive framework that a number of Christians use to understand the passage.

Now this isn’t to say that I felt his critique was completely accurate, but he did give me things to think about. His thoughts impacted me enough that as I started looking at Genesis 11:1-9, I thought of his posts. As we look at the Tower of Babel story a lot of questions come into view. What is the Tower of Babel about? Is it about human pride? Is God presented as fearful in the text? Is God against human progress or is there something else at work here?

My own thoughts after reading the passage, my two commentaries (Sailhamer and Brueggemann), and Morgan Guyton is that it is still about human pride, but not limited to that. I’d say it is also about our fears and our attempts at control particularly against God’s plans and purposes. I think there are a number of connections in terms of word usage and themes that make it hard to not take it as a negative setup. With this said I think it is possible to hold this without making God fearful of or against all human progress or urban life.

So let’s take a look at some of the word connections shall we? John H. Sailhamer likes to point out the significance of east. For whatever reason, and I’m not exactly sure why it is, Genesis doesn’t seem to like eastward movement. After Adam and Eve sin they are kicked out of Eden and move east. When Cain kills Abel he is exiled to the east. So the inclusion of eastward movement here should be noticed. It can give us a hint that we’re not talking about positive activity. Alone it may not be enough, but that’s not all.

Walter Brueggemann brings attention to the word scattered. His focus is that scattering is not necessarily a bad thing and would align with God’s decree in Genesis 1:28 for humanity to “fill the earth.” If this is the case then one of the reasons for building the tower begins to be a bit suspect. In Genesis 11:4 the people say, “otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” Part of the reason for the building of this tower is to resist the idea of scattering or filling of the whole earth.

There is one more word that is often brought up when talking about this passage, and that is the word “name.” Before the people start talking about not wanting to be scattered, they talk about making a name for themselves. Now this may not seem too terrible, but if resisting scattering is to contrast the scattering and world filling action that God desires, than this making of a name is achieved by directly resisting what God desires.

This is especially contrasting with what we’ll see with Abraham in Genesis 12 where it is God who will make Abraham’s name great. It is not Abraham making his name great through his own plans, but by following and trusting in God and having God make his name great. So I would say that the making of ones name here is not a positive thing. I wouldn’t say that this is because God is against all human progress, but it appears that the name making that is happening at Babel is contrary to the scattering and world filling intentions God has with creation.

So I think that we are being led to view this situation as a negative one. The building of the tower to the heavens is an attempt to make a name for those who built it and dwelt there, but also in order to stop the people from scattering. While the common charge of pride may require a bit more work than a surface reading, I do think it is there. As I said earlier, I wouldn’t be so quick to say that pride is the only reason for the building of this tower. Fear is another one.

Brueggemann puts it this way, “the fear of scattering expressed in 11:4 is resistance to God’s purpose for Creation. The peoples do not wish to spread abroad but want to stay in their own safe mode of homogeneity.”I think this is a fear that many of us can understand. We often gravitate towards to those who are like us and either proceed with a hefty amount of wariness or disdain for those who are not. In some churches the idea of the homogenous unit has been used as a way to foster church growth. We are often accepted or rejected by certain groups based on our views on certain issues.

Even for those who may speak of unity, it is a hard thing to actually practice when we run into people who may be very different than us. This can be borne of pride (our views on everything are always right, we have no time for those who are wrong) or out of fear (those who are different than us may dislike, disapprove, reject, or just be different than us). We don’t want to scatter because we may run into people who are different, people who don’t fit into our comfortable homogeneity, people who maybe even dislike us. So we gather and build our towers to the heavens and huddle together even when it goes against God’s mission, purpose, and desire.

Now if this is the reasoning of the people who built the tower, then God’s disapproval doesn’t seem so strange. God isn’t worried because people are building a tower that will intrude upon Heaven. Now it is a bit curious that God is presented here as saying “nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them,” but this is really only a problem if you have to read it completely literally, which is what Morgan Guyton was particularly critiquing, at least if I read him correctly.

We as humans are capable of great things when we work together. When that effort is unified with God and his ways then I imagine God has little issue with that kind of progress. When the focus is on doing what we want regardless of what God has to do with it, then should we be too surprised that God may disapprove? I don’t really think so.

Now this leads us to God’s supposed punishment in the first place. If God’s desire is to have the people spread over the whole earth, then his punishment loses a bit of an edge. It is more in line with the idea of getting people to spread out. If people are going to huddle together in their homogenous groups unwilling and afraid to spread out over the earth then he will confuse their language and scatter them himself. Not just as punishment, but as a way for the people to fill the land.

So all this to say I still think that the Tower of Babel story is a story where the human agents are viewed with negative intent. The Tower of Babel is a symbol of pride and fear. A pride and fear that causes us to trust in the names we make for ourselves rather than God. A pride and fear that leads us to band together in our sameness so we don’t have to be scattered around and interact with those different than us. How many churches, organizations, causes, and groups are these same symbols of pride and fear today? I’m pretty sure that there are more than we’d like to admit. We shouldn’t be too surprised if God scatters us when we’ve made our own towers like this.

The House Bug Bit Us

Have you ever suddenly been interested in something that even a year ago you weren’t?

This is where my wife and I currently are about having a house of our own.

Ever since my wife and I have been married, we’ve lived in apartments. That will be eight years of apartment living come October. For the bulk of that time we’ve never been interested in a house. Our first year of life together was largely focused on Kristen finishing her Master’s degree and then moving to Massachusetts to get my Master’s. We knew that any ideas of permanent residency was pretty much out of the question. Buying a house knowing that arrangements will be very temporary isn’t a smart move so we were happily living in apartments while we were in graduate school.

Even after we both finished our schooling, our desire to buy a house still wasn’t there. After I graduated and we welcomed our son into our family we did move to an apartment with two bedrooms, but still apartment living was fine with us. We didn’t have any desire to buy a house and to be honest, home ownership just seemed awfully daunting to us.

After we moved to back to Pennsylvania something changed. Our contentment with apartment living vanished, from both of us, at pretty much the same time. I’m not entirely sure why that is though. I mean owning a home hasn’t become less daunting to us, I can tell you that.

There are some possible reasons though.

  1. Renting options are pretty slim where we are living now. With two kids, eventually we’re going to need a bit more room than we have now. But in the area we’re living, you can’t really find too many options to rent anything larger than what we’re currently in. So home ownership comes up on the radar as the main option if we want/need more space (read: an extra bedroom).
  2. Our apartment isn’t as nice as the last couple we’ve rented. Don’t get me wrong our apartment is still plenty nice, but it is just worn around the edges a bit more than the previous apartments that we’ve had. It’s better than the apartment we had right after we got married, but not quite as nice as the apartments we had in Massachusetts. Our kitchen is tiny, much to the dismay of my wife (and me to be honest, but she dislikes it more than I) and the appliances/plumbing of the apartment are just not the best. We’ve had toilets that leaked water (not on the floor kind of leaks, but constantly draining from the bowl), wacky stoves, sinks that don’t drain the best, and a pretty small fridge. These aspects are definitely a downgrade from what we had before (at least in those areas.) We do have much more storage space here, which is a big plus, but overall the quality took a drop.
  3. We feel like we’re home. We enjoyed living in Massachusetts, and we still miss those who we got to know there, but I’m not sure it ever entirely felt like home. This is no swipe at Massachusetts or the people we got to know there, but more due to the fact that I think for a long time we always looked at our stay as temporary. I was there for school and we had planned to move after I found a job. Since I never found a job to move to, we just stayed where we were and enjoyed it. We had even gotten to the point of thinking if this was where God called us to be, we’d be okay with it. Turns out we didn’t think He was calling us there and we’re now in PA. The adjustment though hasn’t been hard at all to feeling like this is home, at least for me, so this could be part of the reason. We feel like we’re home and want to put down more permanent roots.
  4. Houses are much more affordable here. In Massachusetts the cost of houses were very high, so if there were not good renting options we probably wouldn’t have been able to pull off a house even if we wanted to. However, in Pennsylvania, housing prices are much cheaper and you can get much more for your money. This definitely helps in the leaning towards the buying category, especially since rental options are fewer.

Honestly, I think the answer is that all of these reasons play a part in our desire to buy a house. It still scares us, it is a huge commitment, and we don’t know when we’ll actually be able to buy one, but it is something that we can’t get out of our minds. My wife and I would separately look at local home listings and when we came clean on doing that we’d look at them together. We dream and imagine what it would be like to have a bigger kitchen, maybe even a bit of yard to call our own, and just feeling like we’d be able to decorate in whatever manner we desire.

That is where we are now. We don’t want to make a hasty decision because we’ve had friends get burned by buying a house and being stuck with it after plans suddenly changed. At the same time the house bug has bit us hard, and we’re actively working on saving for a house. Last Friday we opened a savings account to put aside money expressly for a house.

We’re cautiously going forward with this and we’ll see where it leads us. Maybe we’ll have a house by the end of the year, maybe it won’t be until next year, maybe it will never happen, but we’ll just see as we go. As we go forward I’m sure this won’t be the last heard about our seeking our first house, we’ll just hope that what follows will be good.